Locally-Owned in Oakdale and St. Paul, Minnesota

Understanding GI Upset in Pets & When to Go to the ER

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If your pet is currently experiencing GI upset, refer to our Fast Track Triage system for the best course of action:

  • Pets experiencing persistent or severe vomiting, appetite loss for more than 24 hours, a known foreign body ingestion causing illness, or diarrhea paired with vomiting or loss of appetite are considered “ORANGE” – or urgent cases. We recommend having your pet see your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital within the next 12 hours.
  • Ingesting something toxic is also considered an “ORANGE” – or urgent case. We recommend calling ASPCA Animal Poison Control at 888-426-4435 for help determining if your pet consumed a toxic amount and for guidance on what to do next.
  • Pets experiencing two or fewer episodes of vomiting, acute diarrhea without vomiting, or known ingestion of a foreign body with no signs of illness, these are considered “YELLOW” – or semi-urgent cases. We recommend having your pet evaluated by your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital within 24 hours.  

When seeking veterinary care, always call your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital ahead of your arrival. If your pet’s condition worsens, call back to inform them of the status change.


Most pets will experience at least one episode of gastrointestinal (or “GI”) upset in their lifetime. Just like us humans, our companion dogs and cats can develop an upset tummy for a variety of reasons. Our pets can’t communicate their discomfort or pain, so when Fido or Fluffy is having gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s important for pet parents to know what to monitor and when to seek emergency veterinary care.  

What is GI Upset? 

First off, let’s back up and explain “GI Upset”. This is an umbrella term that refers to signs related to the digestive tract. This can include vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the vomit or stool, abdominal pain, lethargy, or unwillingness to eat. 

Causes of GI Upset 

GI signs in pets can have a variety of causes, including:  

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When to Seek Emergency Care 

When pets are displaying signs of GI upset, it can be difficult for pet owners to determine when to seek emergency veterinary care. In general, here’s a quick guide to help you make an informed decision: 

Signs to seek immediate veterinary care: 
  • Multiple episodes of vomiting 
  • Severe abdominal pain 
  • Blood in stool or vomit
  • Unwilling to eat for 24 hours
  • Known foreign object ingested before signs developed
  • Very lethargic  
Typically safe to wait if your pet… 
  • Is still in relatively good spirits
  • Vomited only once
  • Having small amounts of diarrhea with no blood
  • Only missed one meal 

These pets should be monitored closely at home for persistent or worsening signs or can wait to be seen by your family veterinarian.  

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Treatment 

When you bring your pet to an emergency animal hospital for severe GI upset symptoms, the emergency veterinarian will discuss diagnostics such as bloodwork, fecal testing, and imaging of the abdomen via x-rays or ultrasound. The results of these diagnostics will help determine (or rule out) causes of the symptoms and guide treatment options.  

Dietary Advice 

If your pet has started to show signs of GI upset, DO NOT give any medications unless directed by your family veterinarian, a local animal emergency veterinarian, or an animal poison control center such as ASPCA Animal Poison Control or Pet Poison Helpline. 

However, dogs can be given a bland diet of cooked white rice mixed with boiled skinless, boneless chicken breast or low-fat boiled hamburger can be started in small amounts to try to settle the stomach. 

Unfortunately, there is no effective bland diet for cats. An abrupt diet change for cats during a GI upset episode can lead to worsening symptoms.

Prevention 

Preventative measures to avoid GI upset include: 

  • Refraining from a rapid diet change 
  • Refraining from allowing pets to eat human foods
  • Keeping toys and commonly ingested foreign objects out of reach
    • Examples include hair ties, socks, underwear, small children’s toys, coins, and string, yarn, or ribbon
  • Maintaining heartworm and flea/tick prevention to deter gastrointestinal parasites
  • Daily feeding of high-quality pet foods
    • Ask your family veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist for recommendations 

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GI upset can be a disruptive and uncomfortable illness for both pets and their humans. The good news is that with some simple preventative steps as well as guidance from your family veterinarian, you can help keep your pets safe! In the event your pet does experience GI upset symptoms, we hope this information helps you determine when to seek emergency care and when it’s acceptable to wait until morning to consult with your family veterinarian. When in doubt, contact your local animal emergency hospital (or a pet poison hotline) for their advice.   

Nikki Scherrer, DVM, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

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