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Diagnosing and Treating GI Signs in Pets

A well-balanced, healthy diet and probiotics are excellent means of protecting gut health. But when things go wrong and your pet suffers from vomiting, diarrhea, inappetence and/or constipation, veterinary intervention is often needed. If a veterinarian has a concern about a deadly issue, he or she may request X-rays and or blood work right away to rule out things like stomach twists, obstructions or parvovirus. In non-emergency cases, supportive care and monitoring may suffice. Extra workups are required for cases that do not resolve themselves or that reoccur.

We always start with “50 questions.” Your pet’s story is a very important diagnostic tool. For instance, age and vaccine status help direct our thoughts to viruses or cancer. Exposure to bait or chemicals puts toxins high on the list. A joy for toys has us worried about obstruction. Excessive thirst? Maybe we need to consider an endocrine problem like hyperthyroidism.

Next up is a complete physical exam. The exam may uncover masses, changes in bowel thickness, small kidneys or other issues. Blood and urine testing are important to rule out non-gut causes of diarrhea and vomiting, like kidney, liver and endocrine diseases. Advanced imaging like ultrasound helps to narrow things down further. Sometimes endoscopy or colonoscopy are recommended. These tests involve passing a camera into the stomach or colon of an anesthetized pet to view abnormalities and obtain tissue samples (biopsies).

Before traveling the path of expensive diagnostics, always consider a fecal exam paired with prophylactic deworming. Fecal exams can pick up parasites that do not respond to the product most often used in prophylactic deworming. However, they can also miss parasites that do respond. Since parasites don’t produce eggs continuously; fecal exams, which involve looking for these eggs, can be negative even when parasites are present. Stomach worms are a prime example. It is embarrassing to find them with endoscopy when the treatment is a simple and safe deworming. 

A complete abdominal ultrasound is one of the best imaging tools we have. Not to be confused with a precursory ultrasound, this test views the intricacies of the entire abdomen including the stomach, gut, liver, pancreas, kidneys, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, reproductive system and more. No anesthesia is needed. When done by a well-trained, highly experienced veterinary specialist, it’s one of the most valuable and cost-effective tools in our arsenal. 

Sometimes the results of the ultrasound point to the need for ultrasound guided biopsies or endoscopy and biopsies. These are more invasive procedures, so some clients switch to “treat-the-treatable” mode instead of moving beyond ultrasound. Based on test results, conventional drugs or alternative modalities are chosen to help eliminate clinical signs including vomiting and diarrhea.

Regardless of the cause of non-surgical issues, acupuncture is an excellent and often overlooked tool for treatment. Acupuncture modulates the immune system and gut motility and is also an excellent anti-inflammatory. It helps in the emergency room, the intensive care unit and general practice. Veterinarians that witness the treatment of parvo puppies become fast believers. These little puppies, often on the verge of death, usually respond extremely well. 

Alternative medicine, including acupuncture, often minimizes or eliminates the need for immunosuppressive drugs in cases of irritable bowel disease. Acupuncture helps balance the system of pets that have flare ups. I suspect it would be awesome for bunnies with gut stasis (slowing of the gut movement). It certainly helps constipated cats though they often need medical or herbal management as well. Whenever your pet has a gastrointestinal disorder, remember the value of acupuncture.

Lori Cobb, VMD, CVA, practices integrative veterinary care at Pathways to Wellness located at 1485 Rte. 38, in Hainesport. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 609-267-2111 or visit PathWellVet.com.

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