Dog Dry Heaving: Causes, Prevention, and How to Stop Dry Heaves in Dogs

Dog dry heaving is an attempt your dog makes to vomit without actually producing any vomitus. Your dog may cough, choke, drool, or gag, and hunch their back or tuck their belly in an attempt to get something out. Watching your dog dry heave can be a frightening and concerning experience. Dry heaving is a general symptom, meaning it can be attributed to many different causes. These include underlying health issues, functional problems with the GI tract, ingestion of foreign bodies, and more. If you see your dog dry heaving regularly, or struggling with other symptoms, it’s always best to reach out to your veterinarian. Read on to learn more about the most common causes behind dry heaving in dogs, and how to address them.

Dog Dry Heaving General Signs

While dry heaving itself is a general symptom, there are other signs to watch out for that can help determine its cause. These include changes in your dog’s eating and drinking habits, as well as their bowel and urinary habits. A sick dog may also be more reluctant to play or move around, or seem depressed overall.

Serious signs that need an immediate visit to your vet or an emergency clinic include: struggling to breathe, the lips or gums turning pale or blue, vomiting or diarrhea leading to dehydration, blood in the stool or vomit, confusion, seizures, crying out in pain, or coma. These are all signs of a serious problem that requires immediate care.

Dog Dry Heaving Causes

Here are some of the top causes of dry heaving in dogs, and what to know when addressing them:

Upset Stomach/Indigestion

An upset stomach is one of the most common causes of dry heaving in dogs. It can be brought on by eating something “off”, when your dog goes too long between meals, or just due to changes in the environment or daily routines. Signs of an upset stomach can also include actual vomiting, diarrhea, reluctance to eat, or pain in the abdomen.

Diagnosis greatly depends on what is causing your dog’s upset stomach. In most cases, this can resolve on its own. However, if your dog is continuing to dry heave for several days, or is refusing to eat, it’s best to bring them to your vet for care. Your vet will perform a complete exam of the body systems, including heart rate, respiration rate, and checking for any obvious signs of pain or discomfort. After taking a thorough history, they may also suggest additional tests. These include bloodwork, X-rays, or fecal tests to rule out more serious issues such as an underlying illness, foreign body, parasites, or allergen.

Treatment depends on what is causing your dog’s upset stomach. Your vet can provide an anti-nausea pill or injection to help settle minor stomach upset. Changing your dog’s diet with a supervised food trial, or treating conditions such as parasites with a dewormer can usually resolve the issue.

If your veterinarian suspects a more general cause of stomach upset there are a few things you can try. Increasing your dog’s number of daily meals by feeding smaller meals more frequently, adding in a short course of antacids, or feeding a bland diet of boiled chicken and rice for a few days can help resolve and prevent further stomach upset.

Foreign Object in the Throat, Mouth, or GI Tract

A foreign object stuck in the nose, throat, mouth, or GI tract is a serious cause for concern. In many cases, you’ll see other signs in addition to dry heaving. Your dog may paw at their mouth or face, choke, or cough. If the object has moved further down, your dog may vomit or be unable to pass stool, or become lethargic and unwilling to eat.

Diagnosis involves a thorough exam from your veterinarian. This includes looking in the nasal cavity, the mouth, the hard palate (upper part of the mouth), and throat. If the object is further in the GI tract, X-rays or ultrasound can be used to determine its location. Your vet can then sedate your dog as needed to remove the stuck object, or perform surgical removal if trapped in the GI tract.

Prevention is easy, but not always possible, especially for dogs that like to ‘vacuum’ up everything they see. Keep your dog away from potentially ingestible items. Poultry bones, garbage on walks, and large sticks or stones can all cause accidental ingestion and choking. Teaching commands such as “Leave-it” and “Drop-it” are also great for preventing your dog from eating something they shouldn’t.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are another potential cause of dry heaving in dogs. They can be caused by nearly every ingredient imaginable, but are often due to a reaction to certain meat proteins or grains in the diet such as beef, chicken, fish, egg, wheat, and corn. Signs of a food allergy can include dry heaving or vomiting, diarrhea, changes in weight or appetite, and rashes or sores on the face, muzzle, belly, or full body. In most cases, symptoms are resolved once the underlying allergen is found and removed.

Diagnosis involves ruling out other issues such as GI diseases, parasites, or infections of the skin. If your veterinarian suspects a food-based allergy, they may recommend a course of antihistamines or other allergy medications in addition to a food trial. Food trials work by either removing all potential allergens from a diet and slowly reintroducing them, or switching to an allergen-friendly or novel (new) protein diet. Typically, the trial takes 6-8 weeks before results are seen and it can be determined if the correct allergen was removed.

Prevention of food-based allergies is difficult, especially if you don’t know what your dog is allergic to. Keeping your dog’s diet consistent, and avoiding extra treats and food can help reduce exposure to potential allergens. Switching to a sensitive skin or sensitive stomach diet can also reduce or prevent symptoms in dogs with known allergies.

Intestinal Diseases

Intestinal diseases, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) may also cause a dog to start dry heaving. Additional symptoms of an issue with the digestive tract or internal organs can include vomiting or diarrhea, blood in the stool or vomit, changes in appetite, changes in urinary or bowel habits, painful abdomen, and lethargy. Often, these are signs of inflammation or irritation of the digestive tract, or a potential dysfunction. Acute conditions such as pancreatitis or gall and liver diseases can also cause inflammation in the abdomen with similar symptoms.

Diagnosis involves a thorough exam from your veterinarian including a fecal sample, bloodwork, and potential X-rays or ultrasound to check for inflammation, growths, organ dysfunction, and other causes. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and severity and can range from supplemental medications, antibiotics to treat infection, overnight treatment with IV fluids and IV medications, or changes in diet to avoid common inflammatory triggers.

Prevention is harder in these cases as the symptoms can often come on quickly, or have no symptoms at all until your dog is already ill. In the case of conditions such as pancreatitis, avoidance of people food, especially foods high in fat like bacon, meat scraps, and snacks, can prevent an episode.

Gastric-Dilation Volvulus (GDV)

Gastric-Dilation Volvulus (GDV) is a condition that is a medical emergency. This condition occurs when the stomach or intestinal tract twists or flips, creating a blockage of the intestines. This, in turn, prevents gases from exiting the stomach, leading to distention and potential tearing. In addition to dry heaving, you may see your dog exhibit signs such as vomiting up any food or water eaten, bloating and pain in the abdomen, often coming on quickly, or attempting to defecate without being able to pass stool. While GDV is more common in large or giant breed dogs, any dog suspected of GDV should be seen by a veterinarian or emergency hospital immediately.

Diagnosis depends on clinical symptoms as well as an X-ray or ultrasound of the abdomen to look for the twist. In less severe cases, the stomach may not be fully flipped. This can cause bloating which is then treated by placing a tube into the stomach to allow trapped gas to escape. In more severe cases, the stomach will have to be untwisted by surgical means.

Breeds prone to GDV may require surgical tacking of the stomach to the body wall. This is usually during procedures such as spaying when the abdomen is already open. The chances of GDV can also be reduced by feeding smaller meals more often as a single large volume of food can cause gas build-up and twisting of the stomach.

Kennel Cough/Bordetella

Kennel Cough, or Bordetella, is a viral or bacterial condition that irritates the respiratory tract. It can be transmitted from dog to dog, usually in environments such as kennels (hence the name), dog parks, or animal shelters. Most dogs affected by kennel cough may have a deep, dry hacking cough, and may also choke or dry heave. Additional symptoms can include fevers, vomiting, loss of appetite, and lethargy.

Diagnosis of bordetella is usually through an exam by your vet to rule out other more serious heart or lung issues. A history of exposure to other dogs is also used as a diagnostic marker. Treatment depends on if the strain is bacterial or virally caused. In the cases of bacterial kennel cough, antibiotics can be used to treat the condition. For viral causes, symptoms are treated while the illness runs its course. Additional treatment can include cough suppressants, IV fluids, and medication to treat secondary symptoms. Dogs should also be isolated from other dogs to prevent spread.

Viral bordetella can be prevented via the bordetella vaccine. Vaccines are given as an injectable or nasal solution repeated every six to 12 months depending on the type used. Most boarding facilities require vaccination to help reduce spread.

Medication Interactions/Side Effects

Sometimes, medication side effects can lead to dry heaving or vomiting in dogs. This can be due to allergies with the medication itself, or interactions with other supplements or medications. Additional signs of a medication interaction include loss of appetite, diarrhea, lethargy, or changes in behavior and alertness.

Diagnosis involves ruling out other issues, and having a history of a recent medication change or addition. If symptoms are severe or quickly worsening, an immediate trip to your vet or an emergency clinic is best. Treatment will depend on what is causing the interaction, but may include changing dosing or removing the medication completely.

Prevention includes letting your vet know what other medications your dog is on, any underlying conditions they have, any allergies known, and any supplements they are on. This can help your vet determine what medications are safe to give, and if alternatives or reduced doses are needed. Your vet can also help determine if the benefits of the medication outweigh any potential side effects.

Heart and Lung Problems

As with bordetella, heart and lung issues are non-gastrointestinal-related problems that can cause dry heaving in dogs. Heart and lung issues can cause irritation, fluid build-up, or obstruction of the respiratory or circulatory tract. This can lead to symptoms such as dry heaving, coughing, exercise intolerance (becoming tired out after a short activity), lethargy, vomiting, and more. If your dog is having trouble to the point of not being able to breathe, or their lips or gums are turning blue or pale, this is a medical emergency that should be seen right away.

Diagnosis includes a complete exam, ruling out parasites such as heartworms, bloodwork, and X-ray or ultrasound of the heart and lungs. Depending on the cause, treatment can vary. It ranges from medications to help regulate heart and lung function, clear obstructions, removal of fluid build-up, or treatment to remove parasites. In more severe cases, your veterinarian may also refer you to a specialist for additional care.

Prevention can be hard if the underlying cause is a functional or inherited issue of the heart or lungs. However, parasites such as heartworms can be prevented with once-a-month oral or yearly injectable medications along with yearly heartworm testing to catch issues early.

Tumors

Tumors can be another cause of dry heaving in dogs. They may be in any part of the digestive tract from the mouth to the tail. They may be asymptomatic, or cause symptoms such as dry heaving, vomiting, coughing, diarrhea, bloody stool or vomit, lethargy, or changes to the size of the abdomen, gums, mouth, and more. Tumors that are large enough to cause obstruction may be visible upon general examination.

Diagnosis of tumors include a general physical exam, as well as bloodwork, and X-ray or ultrasound of the digestive tract. Tumors can appear as opaque masses on these tests. Additional testing, such as biopsy of visible tumors can also determine if the tumor is benign or malignant. Treatment varies depending on the location and severity of the tumor. Smaller tumors may be removed with surgical means, while larger or more malignant tumors may require chemotherapy or other cancer treatments to reduce or remove them. In some cases, your vet may refer you to a veterinary oncologist (cancer specialist) for treatment.

Prevention of tumors is hard as they can be genetically predisposed, or just be a part of aging in dogs. The best way to prevent severe cases is to keep an eye on your dog’s symptoms, and note any physical changes to the mouth, gums, or other visible parts of the body. Early recognition and biopsy of tumors may make it easier for them to be removed and reduce severe disease.

Swelling of the Throat, Mouth, or Tonsils

Swelling, caused by allergic reactions to the environment, bug bites, and more, can also cause dry heaving in dogs. It can also cause other symptoms such as swelling of the tongue, face, neck, or head, coughing, vomiting, pawing at the face or nose, lethargy, or general distress. If the swelling is rapid, affecting the nose, face, or airways, emergency care is needed.

Diagnosis of swelling involves a thorough exam of the face, mouth, nasal passages, and body. Usually, treatment involves medications such as antihistamines given orally or via IV to reduce swelling. In severe cases of swelling, steroids or other medications may be given to reduce the immune response. Once any severe swelling has been treated, home treatments of continued oral steroids or antihistamines can be helpful.

Prevention of swelling includes ensuring your dog is kept away from things that may cause allergic reactions. Items like poison ivy or poison oak, or very dusty rooms (if your dog has environmental allergies) should be avoided. Keeping your dog from getting too curious about insect homes, such as beehives or ground nests, can also prevent stings or bites that may cause an allergic reaction.

There are many different illnesses, diseases, and issues that can cause dry heaving in dogs, which can sometimes make it hard to figure out why your dog is sick. Taking note of other symptoms your dog may have and any changes to their environment or diet can help alert you to an issue before it becomes serious. If at any time you suspect your dog may be ill, a vet visit is best.

1 Comment

  1. My puppy is nine weeks old and we have had her since probably about seven weeks and she plays with our cat all the time and she has been fine for the two weeks we’ve had her until last night she woke me up at 3:30 in the morning like coughing or trying to get something out of her throat it’s hard to describe the sound but she never vomited and then this morning she was fine but now she’s been doing it every few hours just a tiny bit but she still very playful and eating and everything . Could it be a hairball from her always licking and biting on the cat?

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