How to Prevent Ulcers in Your Dog

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Your dog's stomach, and yours also incidentally, contains a powerful acid that breaks down food. This broken down food then passes into the small intestine, where nutrients from digested food can be absorbed into the body. The problem is, how do you contain this powerful stomach acid, which has a pH of 2 and can dissolve food tissues, inside a stomach which is made of tissue! The answer is that the stomach and GI tract have a mucosal barrier, a lining that is highly supplied with blood flow, so that the cells of the lining can constantly reproduce to maintain the lining, even as it is exposed to stomach acid. This lining protects your dog’s GI tract from the acidic contents of the stomach. If these mucosal barriers breaks down, however, due to damage, or reduced blood flow preventing adequate replacement of lining cells, stomach acid or ingested substances can damage the stomach wall, or intestine, causing an ulcer. This can result in a vicious cycle, as once the damage to the epithelial cells of the GI tract occurs, inflammation further disrupts blood flow, which further degrades the mucosal lining. Disruptions in the mucosal lining that lead to injury of the stomach wall cause sores which are extremely painful.

Symptoms of ulcers in your dog are:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Abdominal distention

  • Salivation

  • Vomiting, which may contain blood

  • Depression, lethargy, weakness

  • Anxiety, irritability

  • Dehydration

  • Loss of appetite and weight

  • Anemia from blood loss

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Pale gums and mucous membranes

  • Black, tarry stools, from blood passing through digestive system

  • Disorientation, shock, loss of consciousness and collapse

If your dog passes or vomits blood, you should see a veterinarian immediately to determine if gastric ulcers are present. Ulcers can be addressed by a veterinarian with supportive care, medications, and sometimes surgical intervention.

Causes and Prevention of Ulcers in Dogs

Breakdown or compromise of the gastric mucosa lining, which allows damage of the stomach wall by stomach acid, results in ulcers which can result in hemorrhage and even death, if the stomach wall bursts.

Compromise of the gastrointestinal tract can lead to break down of the mucosal lining protecting it. This usually results from a decreased blood supply to the GI tract compromising the lining’s ability to regenerate, an increase in stomach acidity, or both. Injury to the stomach lining can also occur.

Causes of compromise in the GI tract that can lead to ulcers in the stomach or intestine include:

  • Medications: some drugs, such as corticosteroids, painkillers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other medications can cause GI compromise by decreasing blood flow and increasing stomach acid. The combination of an increased pressure on the mucosal lining with a decrease in its ability to regenerate can result in failure of the lining.

  • Chronic dehydration: reduces the required blood flow to the mucosal lining to allow it to replenish itself and maintain an effective barrier.

  • Caustic substances or a foreign object ingested can result in injury to the mucosal lining

  • Stress: increased stomach acid can overwhelm the mucosal barrier, this can result from extreme exertion, such as may occur in sled dogs or other working dogs, or chronic nervousness in dogs that are subject to abuse

  • Bacterial infection: can cause damage to lining and decrease in blood flow

  • Cancer: can damage mucosal lining by blocking blood flow

  • Inflammatory bowel disease: inflammation can lead to blockages of blood supply, decreasing the lining’s ability to repair itself

  • Addison's disease, pancreatitis, liver disease, kidney failure all can all result in changes to hydration, blood supply, stomach acid levels, and the ability of the mucosal lining to repair itself resulting in ulcers. Additionally, medications used to treat these diseases and others can impair GI tract lining

  • Shock: reduces blood flow and increases acid

  • Poisoning or toxicity

  • Allergic reactions

  • Chronic inflammation of the stomach lining referred to as gastritis

  • A diet with too much fat

Preventative Measures

Since such a wide variety of causes contributes to ulcers in your dog's GI tract, there are a number of steps dog owners can take to prevent the causes and contributing factors of ulcer development in their dogs.

Assess Risk Factors

If your dog is prone to ulcers or risk factors such as disease or medications that may contribute to the development of ulcers are present, dog owners should make as many adjustments as possible to prevent the development of an ulcer.

Diet Changes

The most effective step is to modify your dog's diet to prevent excess production of stomach acid. Owners of dogs in high-risk groups can provide bland, easily digestible foods, that will not cause GI tract disruption or inflammation. Meals might include:

  • Rice - a highly digestible carbohydrate

  • Lean Meat - a source of protein without fat, fat stimulates stomach acid production, meat can be boiled and excess fat drained off

  • Baby food which is bland and free from substances that are difficult to digest.

  • Low fat, plain yogurt, to soothe and protect the stomach, and protect lining from irritants can be added to rice to make it more palatable

  • Avoid hard biscuits, treats, and kibble that can cause mechanical damage to the stomach or intestinal linings.

Dog owners can also provide multiple, small meals, instead of one or two large ones daily, that result in large amounts of acid being produced at one time to digest food, and lots of fresh water at all times so your dog does not experience dehydration and decreased blood flow to GI organs.

Medications

Providing medications for medical conditions should only be done as required, and the minimal effective medication level should be determined and maintained. If medications can be discontinued, they should be as soon as possible. Medication such as Misoprostol, can reduce the detrimental gastric effects of NSAIDS and may be considered if NSAIDs are required long term.

Stressors

Reducing stress from a nervous disposition or environmental factors with behavioral conditioning or therapy and ensuring that dogs do not experience stress from overwork is advised to prevent ulcers. Dogs should be provided with rest and relaxation especially if they are a working dog.

Supplements

Supplements to improve GI tract functioning and the immune system can be added to your dog's diet to ensure GI tract health and strengthen the mucosal lining.

Veterinary Care

Address diseases with prompt veterinary care, to reduce their symptoms, and the effect they will have on the stomach lining. Regular monitoring of your dog's health, and check ups with your veterinarian can address conditions before they result in ulcers in your dog's GI tract.

Importance of Preventing Ulcers

Ulcers are very painful and can result in hemorrhaging and death for your dog if they progress. Preventing them, especially if your dog is at risk for them, with a modified diet and careful monitoring of health and medications administered are simple steps that can mitigate the formation of ulcers, but will also contribute to your dog's overall health.

Maintaining Health and Balance

Your dog's GI tract, stomach, and intestine are lined with a mucosal lining that protects GI structures from digestive acids and ingested substances. If the lining becomes compromised by injury, overproduction of acids, or inability to regenerate itself, substances in the GI tract can damage the walls of the digestive system resulting in pain, bleeding, infection, and even death.

Although treatment of ulcers is available, preventing the condition from occurring, if possible, will prevent pain and suffering in your pet, as well as permanent damage to organs that can result from ulcers. There are many conditions and situations that can cause or contribute to the formation of ulcers. Preventing these conditions from occurring is the most effective way to reduce the chance your dog will experience ulcers. Providing a high quality diet, a safe environment, and regular medical care to prevent medical conditions from developing are the best preventatives

If your dog is in a high risk group due to a condition or situation, minimizing medications required and feeding a bland diet with supplements to promote GI tract health and immune system functioning can be helpful in preventing ulcers from forming.