Sick cat on couch

For a pet owner, there’s not much worse than having to care for an animal who’s vomiting or has diarrhea. It’s even worse when it occurs in the middle of the night, and you’re awakened by the hacking that precedes vomiting or the stench that accompanies diarrhea.

Vomiting and diarrhea can have a number of causes: getting into the garbage or toxic substances, eating too much, an abrupt change in diet, certain diseases, internal parasites — and even stress.

It’s never smart to assume that a dog’s or cat’s stomach upset is simply the result of dietary indiscretion. It could be caused by a foreign body obstruction, ingestion of a rodenticide or bloat. If you wait an hour too long to take your pet to the vet, the result could be fatal — or, at the least, very expensive.

A phone call costs nothing. Give your veterinarian a quick call and describe what’s happening. The history of the problem may determine whether it’s urgent. If your vet decides that your pet simply has a case of what we like to call “garbage gut,” here’s how to handle the situation, from cleanup to recovery.

Cleanup Tips

When pets suffer digestive tract upset, the spew that can come out of either end is pretty disgusting, but diarrhea may have the edge when it comes to the gross-out factor. Loose, unformed, stinky stools are the hallmark of a case of the runs. Vomitus may contain the remains of partially digested food or yellow bile, which can stain carpets.

I’m guessing that the first thing you’ll want to do after checking on your pet’s well-being is to get the mess cleaned up. If you have carpet, this is best done as quickly as possible, using an enzymatic cleanser that will “eat” the bacteria that cause stinks and stains. Wearing disposable rubber gloves — the thicker the better, I think — get up as much of the goo as you can. Use a damp paper towel to remove as much of the remainder as you can, doing your best not to spread it further. Treat the area with the cleanser and let it sit for about an hour. Then blot the area with a paper towel or clean, dry towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Once the area is only slightly damp, sprinkle baking soda on it and let it sit for 24 hours. During that time, keep your pet from ingesting the baking soda by covering the area with a laundry basket or closing the door to the room. After that, just vacuum.

For hard surfaces, such as tile or wood, simply wipe up the mess and treat the floor with the cleanser to remove the odor.

Of course, you’ll want to clean up your pet as well. He may need a “butt bath,” especially if he has a furry rear end. Mix some pet shampoo with water and wipe him down as needed with a clean washcloth or sponge. Check his paws, too, in case he walked through the mess. Rinse thoroughly and blot him dry.

Dietary Details

Many pet owners want to give their dogs or cats food after they have vomited or have had diarrhea, but this is mainly to help themselves feel better. Do you feel like eating after you’ve had a digestive disaster? I didn’t think so.

The standard advice for a pet who has upchucked is to withdraw food for 12 to 24 hours to give the stomach a rest and then feed small amounts of a bland meal, such as boiled hamburger and rice (unless your veterinarian advises otherwise). In cats, food shouldn’t be withheld for longer than 24 hours.

The boiled hamburger-and-rice meal can work for mild digestive upset. Another option I like to recommend is that people have three cans of a special veterinary gastrointestinal diet on hand for just such occasions. Once your pet’s, er, output is back to normal, you can gradually reintroduce his usual food.

Instead of providing water, put ice cubes in your pet’s drinking dish. That way, they melt slowly and ensure that he doesn’t take in too much water all at once.

Spotting an Emergency

How do you know if a case of vomiting or diarrhea warrants a visit to the veterinarian? Puppies, kittens and older animals are more prone to dehydration and may benefit from subcutaneous fluids and anti-diarrheal medications, so it’s best to take them in sooner rather than later. Other causes for concern are an increase in the volume or frequency of vomiting or diarrhea; the presence of blood in the vomit or diarrhea; and signs of discomfort, such as straining or lethargy. When in doubt, call your veterinarian.

An occasional bout of vomiting or diarrhea in pets isn’t unusual, but if it continues or occurs frequently, it’s cause for concern. Schedule a visit with your veterinarian if the problem persists or you have any lingering worries.

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