The two most common signs associated with disturbances of the gastrointestinal tract are vomiting and diarrhoea. This article explains how the digestive tract works and how to look after your pet with an acute intestinal upset.
Acute diseases (rapid onset, short duration) if managed correctly can reduce the risk of a more chronic (long duration) problem occurring.
The Digestive Tract
For pets to obtain the nourishment they need for their daily life, food must be broken down into smaller nutrients that can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
The process of breaking down food particles is called digestion. This process begins in the stomach and continues in the intestines where the nutrients are absorbed. Little of the digestive process occurs in the large intestine.
Here, water is reabsorbed into the bloodstream. This is important not only in the production of firm stools but in maintaining the body’s water balance. Inflammation of the intestinal tract can be caused by a variety of things, including infections (bacteria, viruses), eating spoiled food or rubbish, food allergies and some medications.
Sudden changes or additions to the diet, such as feeding table scraps or milk, can also cause diarrhoea in some animals. Other diseases, such as kidney disease and liver disease can also result in the development of gastroenteritis.
Gastritis is the term used to describe inflammation of the stomach and is usually associated with vomiting and abdominal pain. It often occurs along with inflammation of the intestines, or enteritis. Gastroenteritis, therefore, describes a general inflammation of the intestinal tract.
Inflammation of the intestinal tract prevents the normal digestive and absorptive processes. Water and nutrients are not efficiently absorbed from the body resulting in large volumes of diarrhoea.
Pets with severe diarrhoea are therefore at risk of becoming dehydrated due to this loss of fluid. Fluid therapy in the form of electrolyte drinks, or if the diarrhoea is very severe, intravenous fluids are therefore an important component of treatment.
Vomiting, if present, not only results in more fluid loss but will also upset the acid/base and electrolyte balance of the blood.
Your veterinary surgeon may prescribe medicines (antibiotics and/or drugs to control vomiting) for your pet depending on the suspected cause and severity of your pet’s gastroenteritis. If your pet is severely dehydrated an intravenous drip may be necessary to replace the lost fluid and electrolytes.
Whatever the cause of your pet’s diarrhoea, an essential component of treatment is dietary management.
Dietary Management in Acute Diarrhoea
In order to provide the intestines with a period of ‘rest’, your veterinary surgeon may recommend withholding food for 24 hours and a fluid replacement drink. This electrolyte solution will not only aid rehydration but also help to restore the electrolyte and acid/base balance of the body.
Your veterinary surgeon will advise you when you can begin to feed a highly digestible ‘bland’ diet. A highly digestible diet allows the intestine to easily digest and absorb the nutrients that your pet needs.
Small, frequent meals will also reduce the volume of food that the intestines receive. Ideally, the diet should have a higher energy concentration than normal foods, to enable your pet to obtain all the nutrients that they need in a reduced volume.
Feeding the right diet is crucial for the improvement of digestive tract disorders. Everyone who comes into contact with your pet should realise the importance of feeding only the recommended diet; this means avoiding any treats or snacks. It is also important that your pet is prevented from scavenging food from the rubbish or from outside.
Your veterinary surgeon may prescribe a specially formulated diet for 3- 5 days during the period of recovery. They are the ideal “highly digestible diet” to use during periods of recovery as they contain a single meat or fish protein source and a single source of carbohydrate with the correct balance of vitamins and minerals to meet your pet’s needs.
They provide a more concentrated source of energy than normal petfoods, enabling your pet to receive all the nutrients that they require in smaller volumes of food. Following recovery, your pet can be changed gradually back onto their normal diet over a period of 3-4 days. If problems persist, you may wish to continue feeding the Selected Protein diet long term.