It might be gross, but dogs throw up. And there are all sorts of reasons, from eating too fast to serious health concerns.
Although you might use the terms interchangeably, vomiting and regurgitating are two distinct behaviors. It’s important to distinguish which one your dog is doing because they have different causes and require different diagnostic tests. Read on to learn all you need to know about regurgitating and vomiting in dogs.
What Is the Difference Between Regurgitating and Vomiting in Dogs?
Although both result in a pile of goo on the floor, regurgitating and vomiting are actually different bodily processes. According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, vomiting is an active action, while regurgitation is passive. In other words, a dog’s body uses vomiting to forcefully expel food from the stomach or the beginning section of the small intestine. There is usually grunting, retching, and heaving as the abdominal muscles contract on the stomach. Vomiting in dogs can happen soon after eating or hours later.
On the other hand, Dr. Klein explains that regurgitation occurs when the body expels food from the mouth, pharynx (the part of the throat behind the mouth and above the esophagus), or, in most cases, the esophagus (the narrow, muscular tube food passes through as it travels to the stomach). Your dog won’t heave or grunt and may even seem surprised when the regurgitation happens, as it occurs without warning. Dogs usually regurgitate right after eating.
Signs Your Dog Is Regurgitating
Besides the typical difference in time between eating and expulsion, you can also tell regurgitation from vomiting by watching your dog’s behavior. If they exhibit no effort, it’s almost certainly regurgitation. If they look like they’re straining, it’s vomiting. If you are uncertain about the difference, take a video of your dog so you can show your veterinarian exactly what’s happening.
But what if you don’t see your dog in the act? You can also tell the difference from the mess left behind. Regurgitated material will look exactly like it did when it was eaten. So chewed kibble will still look like chewed kibble. There might also be liquid along with the food. The most telling thing is the shape. Regurgitated food will often be tubular due to being compressed in the esophagus.
Signs Your Dog Is Vomiting
However, vomited material will usually look digested or partially digested. You might not be able to recognize what the dog ate, and there will be a lot of fluid mixed in. That fluid might be clear or can be different colors.
Greenish to yellow vomit in dogs indicates the food came from the small intestine. The bright yellow color of the vomit is due to the bile that is secreted there. Red is caused by blood in dog vomit. Bright red indicates fresh blood, and brown bits that look like coffee grounds indicate older blood that has been digested. White, foamy vomit in dogs can mean anything from indigestion to bloat, a painful condition where your dog’s stomach fills with gas, depending on whether anything is thrown up besides saliva.
Be sure to tell your vet exactly what the vomit looks like. You can even take a photo or sample to help with diagnosis.
Telling Apart Regurgitating and Vomiting in Dogs
Regurgitating and vomiting have different underlying causes and therefore require different diagnostic tests. The fewer tests your vet needs to run, the less stress on your dog and the smaller the impact on your bank account. Dr. Klein says, “Giving an accurate description of your dog’s behavior helps the veterinarian more quickly and accurately diagnose the area and cause of concern. This may help them choose appropriate diagnostics to accurately diagnose a condition more efficiently.”
The most common way of differentiating between vomiting and regurgitating involves imaging such as X-rays, barium studies, or an ultrasound. With regurgitation, your vet will want to focus on the esophagus, whereas, with vomiting, tests will focus on the stomach and upper small intestine. When it comes to vomiting, Dr. Klein says that “blood tests are often performed to assess the general condition of the patient and to rule out metabolic disease and determine hydration and electrolyte imbalance.”
What Causes Regurgitation in Dogs?
Dr. Klein explains that regurgitation can be caused by anything that blocks the esophagus or affects its function. Examples of things that can block the esophagus include:
- Foreign objects like toys or bones
- Tumors or masses
- Congenital heart issues like vascular ring anomalies
- Abnormal narrowing or tightening, known as strictures
- Hiatal hernias (when the upper part of the stomach protrudes through the diaphragm)
- Certain esophageal parasites, such as the worm Spirocera lupi, found in the southern United States
Conditions that negatively impact the ability of the esophagus to function include esophageal motility disorder (where the esophagus appears normal but doesn’t work as it should) and megaesophagus (where the muscle tone of the esophagus is lost and the last part of the organ becomes a weak, sack-like pocket that collects food until the dog regurgitates it). According to Dr. Klein, megaesophagus can be congenital or can develop secondary to other medical issues.
What Causes Vomiting in Dogs?
Dr. Klein says, “Vomiting can be caused by anything irritating the gastrointestinal tract, such as dietary indiscretion, toxins, foreign bodies and mechanical obstruction, parasites, metabolic issues such as kidney, liver, or pancreatic disease, viral or bacterial infections, strictures, or cancers or tumors.”
When Is Regurgitation or Vomiting in Dogs Cause For Concern?
Both regurgitation and vomiting in dogs can have serious consequences. For example, regurgitation happens so suddenly that your dog can aspirate (inhale) the food into their lungs, leading to aspiration pneumonia, usually accompanied by difficulty breathing and sudden coughing. Dr. Klein recommends that you mention any repeated regurgitation to your vet, especially if you have a young puppy, because it could be caused by a malformed esophagus.
Vomiting can also require a vet visit. Any repeated vomiting that occurs over a period of hours should be reported, as it can lead to dehydration or can indicate an emergency situation like an obstruction. Worms in dog vomit should also send you to the vet, as it can indicate your dog has a roundworm infection. Repeated vomiting may also mean your dog has an underlying condition that requires attention, such as pancreatitis or a viral infection.