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What to Feed a Dog with a Sensitive Stomach

By Stacey Hunvald, DVM

Like people, some dogs have sensitive stomachs. It can be tricky to figure out exactly what is causing your pet’s issue, but the right nutrition can help.

The term “sensitive stomach” is often used as a blanket statement to describe digestive issues of all sorts, no matter where in the digestive tract the issue is actually occurring. The digestive tract consists of the stomach, of course, but also the esophagus, small intestine and large intestine, with assistance from the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. The organs of the digestive tract are collectively called the gastrointestinal (GI) system. A dog with  a sensitive stomach may be experiencing a  health concern anywhere along the GI system. 

While GI issues can be subtle and have symptoms that are similar to other issues occurring outside the GI tract, determining whether a GI cause is present and addressing the issue with diet and/or medications can have a big impact on your pet’s overall health and comfort. 

Signs of a sensitive stomach in dogs

Dogs with GI issues might experience the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea or both
  • Poor appetite
  • Difficulty maintaining weight 
  • Low energy
  • Signs of pain, such as walking with a hunched posture.

There are many possible underlying causes of GI issues in dogs, including:

  • Food sensitivity or allergies to specific foods
  • Inflammation in the intestines 
  • Illnesses elsewhere in the body that can cause digestive discomfort

While all pets can experience a bout of GI upset, if it happens more than occasionally it should be discussed with your veterinarian. If GI upset is accompanied by inability to keep down any food, unwillingness to eat or lethargy, call your veterinarian as soon as possible as these can indicate a serious illness. 

A bloated stomach can indicate a critical emergency, so if you observe sudden severe discomfort and a large stomach, seek emergency care.

How can I tell if my dog is allergic to their food?

Allergies in dogs usually show up as itching or redness of the skin. However, some dogs have a digestive intolerance to ingredients in their food, resulting in GI signs such as vomiting or diarrhea. Left untreated, food intolerance and inflammation of the intestines (commonly referred to as inflammatory bowel disease or IBD) can lead to weight loss or nutritional deficiencies as the body struggles to absorb sufficient nutrients. If your vet suspects a food intolerance has been making your dog sick, they might suggest a food trial to potentially isolate the source. Recommendations might include:

  • Hydrolyzed protein diets are veterinary diets in which the protein in the food has been broken down to smaller molecules that the body often cannot recognize as an irritant. 
  • Novel protein source diets contain less common protein sources such as rabbit, venison or duck. Since allergic reactions in the body require previous exposure to the allergen, novel proteins may reduce inflammation associated with food sensitivities. Note that some diets with novel proteins as a primary meat source might  contain smaller quantities of more common proteins as well.  Read labels carefully and consult with your veterinarian when in doubt because even a small amount of the offending protein source can cause a food allergy reaction in the intestines despite the change to a new primary protein.
  • Limited ingredient diets can also be beneficial to evaluate whether food intolerance is contributing to GI concerns. As the name suggests, such foods are made from as few different ingredients as possible to reduce the various potential allergens that may be present. Like novel protein source diets, care must be taken to ensure purity as there are no regulatory requirements for using the descriptor. In other words, there are no rules pet food companies must follow before labeling a food as a limited ingredient diet.

What to feed a dog with digestive issues

Some GI inflammatory conditions can also benefit from diet changes. But because there are many possible underlying causes for inflammation in the intestinal tract, you’ll need to work with a veterinarian to determine if your pup will also require medications or other treatments. This is particularly true when nutritional deficiencies or weight loss are present. 

However, some sensitive stomach diets may help with GI inflammation. In particular, foods with reduced fat content can be beneficial for certain inflammatory conditions. Increased fiber content can also be helpful for some GI concerns. Fiber can regulate the rate at which food moves through the digestive tract and allow better absorption of nutrients. Fiber also provides nutrients to the good bacteria present in the intestines, which can improve digestive tract health.

What not to feed a dog with a sensitive stomach

Pet parents often ask what foods to feed dogs with sensitive stomachs. However, in many cases the question of what not to feed your dog should also be considered. 

While we always advise against feeding dogs high-fat human foods such as bacon, fatty pieces of meat or poultry skin, this is particularly true for dogs with sensitive stomachs. High-fat foods may simply be too rich for your pup and also are thought to contribute to pancreatitis, a serious inflammatory condition of the pancreas. 

Other table scraps can also be risky to a dog’s GI tract. Some dogs do not tolerate certain vegetables due to the gasses that often result from their digestion. Additionally, for some dogs table scraps are simply too varied from their normal diet balance, resulting in stomach upset. Be especially aware of sources of unintentional table scraps such as from children dropping food or your pup sneaking bits from the counter or the trash.

Finally, you’ll want to avoid excessive treats. Treats are intended to be just that, a treat. They do not contain balanced nutrition for your pup. Overfeeding treats may reduce your pup’s desire to eat their more well-balanced dog food as well as directly cause stomach upset with excess fats or dyes or reduced digestibility compared to dog food. Remember, treats should make up no more than 10% of your dog’s daily recommended calorie consumption.

Other digestive recommendations

Some dogs with mild sensitivities may see their symptoms improve with a change to a  sensitive stomach dog food. Although they don’t all follow the same rules about which ingredients to include or eliminate, they are formulated to balance protein, fat and fiber to be more easily digested. As with any  diet trial, you’ll need at least two months of dedicated usage to determine its effectiveness.

For some dogs with digestive symptoms, probiotics can be helpful, fed either as a supplement or in a dog food that’s been formulated to contain them. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that can aid digestion and help keep the intestines healthy and well balanced. They can have a positive impact on overall gut health, improving GI signs for several underlying causes. High-quality, dog-specific probiotics work best. 

Fiber supplementation can also be helpful in addressing GI conditions, particularly in cases of diarrhea. Your veterinarian might recommend adding canned 100% pumpkin or a psyllium fiber supplement to your dog’s feeding plan. 

While one of these options could help alleviate your sensitive dog’s digestive discomfort, remember that these changes should always be made in consultation with your veterinarian.

Finally, for dogs with sensitive stomachs, consistency is important. Feeding your dog on a regular schedule and sticking to a smaller variety of treats and foods can be helpful. One mistake some pet parents make is changing the diet too frequently to really assess a new diet’s effect. Since GI issues can be frustrating, sometimes changing the food again in search of something that works better for your pup can be tempting. Remember that a new diet needs to be followed strictly for at least two months to determine its effectiveness. Of course, if your pup’s condition worsens while on the trial, consult your veterinarian. 

Diet changes for any reason should always be made slowly, but gradual transitions are even more important for sensitive stomachs. Mix small amounts of a new food into your pet’s old food to start the process. Continue increasing the ratio of new food to the original diet over about 10 days.

Finding the right combination of diet and habits to keep your sensitive pup comfortable often requires some trial and error. But the positive changes to their comfort and overall health will be worth it to help them be their happiest, healthiest self!