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Tummy problems in pets

From time to time, dogs and cats will have some kind of gastrointestinal upset. Acute vomiting or diarrhoea usually responds quickly to fasting and an easily digested diet. More frustrating are recurring, or chronic, tummy problems of varying severity in pets. Signs may include reduced appetite, weight loss, diarrhoea, vomiting, constipation, gut pain, increased gut noise, a tendency to eat grass, mucus in the stools or straining.

With our conventional veterinary hat on, we may run tests to rule out infections by viruses, bacteria or parasites, intestinal obstructions, organ dysfunction such as liver disease or kidney disease, or pancreatic problems. For many patients, these tests are negative or inconclusive. We are then left with a choice of more invasive and expensive testing: radiographs, ultrasound, endoscopy or even exploratory laparotomy and biopsy. Other options might be treatment with strong medications, which in themselves can cause health problems.

Signs of stress in dogs may include altered eye contact with owners, hiding, pacing, barking, destructive behaviour at home, trembling or obsessive behaviours such as foot licking.

Sometimes, digestive problems can be caused by stress. Signs of stress in dogs may include altered eye contact with owners, hiding, pacing, barking, destructive behaviour at home, trembling or obsessive behaviours such as foot licking. For cats, inappropriate toilet behaviour, overgrooming, hiding and aggression towards owners or companion animals can be signs of stress.

We don’t always know that the vomiting or diarrhoea is caused by stress. It is important initially to have a veterinary exam, and even some testing, to help rule out more serious causes. However, it cannot hurt, and will probably even help, to use a calming approach to the treatment of chronic gut problems.

The calm diet

Try a simpler diet consisting of a single protein, a low-GI carbohydrate and maybe some ground vegetables. Fats and oils may be reduced or left out for a short while. Any milk, soy, corn and wheat is eliminated.

Oats are nourishing and contain some soluble fibre to assist gut health. Oats are also used traditionally to calm the nervous system.

An example is a diet of cooked white fish (lean, easy to digest) mixed with cooked, mashed pumpkin (a source of soluble fibre, which supports a healthy gut) and some finely chopped cooked spinach (a source of zinc, fibre, vitamin A and vitamin C). This is not a balanced diet but is high in fibre, easy to digest and low in fat. It can reduce the workload of the gut and allow it to heal.

An alternative to the pumpkin is to use soaked or cooked oats. Oats are nourishing and contain some soluble fibre to assist gut health. Oats are also used traditionally to calm the nervous system.

By simplifying the diet we are removing artificial colours and flavours, fats and potentially allergens like gluten. Small meals are fed more frequently so as not to overload the gut and to allow it to rest.

Supplements to calm & support the gut

Probiotics. These are beneficial strains of bacteria. They protect against pathogen invasion, support the growth and differentiation of intestinal cells and support the immune system.

Prebiotics. These are a type of carbohydrates called oligosaccharides that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and suppress the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Both probiotics and prebiotics will need to be supplemented for patients with irritable or inflammatory bowel. Probiotics can be given during a course of antibiotics, as long as they are separated by about one hour.

Cobalamin (vitamin B12). Stress and chronic diarrhoea will deplete B vitamin stores. Lack of B12 will reduce appetite and may led to anaemia, especially in cats. Supplements of this vitamin may need to be given by injection weekly to begin with.

Vegetable-based digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes, such as bromelain (from pineapple) and papain (from pawpaw), are anti-inflammatory and so can help settle an inflamed gut. They may also aid digestion, thus allowing the gut and pancreas to rest and recover. They can be added to food twice daily.

Glutamine. Naturally found in high-protein foods including beef, chicken, fish, beans and dairy products as well as pearl barley, oats, wheat bran and almonds. Glutamine supplies energy to the cells of the intestines. Glutamine has been used as a natural protectant to reduce the risk of ulcers. Higher levels of glutamine will be needed in the diet when there is intestinal stress. Glutamine is often combined with turmeric, aloe and slippery elm.

Calming gut herbs

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is both a carminative and spasmolytic for irritated stomach or intestines, as well as a mild sedative to calm the mind. Dogs can drink it as a tea, especially at night if prone to night-time colic. Steep either one teaspoon of dried leaves, or a teabag, in one cup just-boiled water for 20 minutes. Cats may salivate if given chamomile to drink.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is also a carminative, spasmolytic and an antiemetic. It is gently cooling and may help ease anxiety. It can be combined with chamomile in a tincture or a tea, and mixed into food.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a carminative and spasmolytic used for intestinal colic, flatulance, dyspepsia, poor appetite, diarrhoea and nausea. The seeds can be ground and soaked, then mixed in food.

Stress in the home environment

Reducing stress for your pet may require a combination of strategies. Ensure their environment is stimulating with plenty of exercise, including off-leash exercise for dogs, as well as quality time with owners. Dogs are social animals and need that interaction. Cats, too, need stability in their environment, as well as variety.

Specific calming remedies include flower essences, calming pheromone sprays or diffusers, calming music, acupuncture and massage. Belly massage is not always a good choice for pets with grumbly tummies but can be used as stimulation for those that are constipated. Ear massage, gently pulling up your pets’ ears and releasing in a calm rhythm, stimulates calming acupressure points and can be a gentle bonding session for you and your pet.

Karen Goldrick

Karen Goldrick

Karen Goldrick is a holistic veterinarian at All Natural Vet Care, Russell Lea, Sydney, Australia.

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