As dog parents, I think we’ve all experienced the 3 am wake-up call from our best friends-the dreaded sound of your dog dry heaving. Will you be cleaning up vomit shortly after or is it something else? While dogs may vomit fairly regularly as a result of an indiscriminate appetite, such as last week’s garbage, dry heaving could mean something more serious and complicated is going on. It’s important to not ignore dry heaving in your pup as it could be an emergency situation.
What is Dry Heaving in Dogs?
Heaving refers to going through the motions of vomiting, only without bringing up any stomach contents. It is different from retching or coughing in that a dog dry heaving is using their abdominal muscles to try to force something from the stomach. Coughing and retching don’t reach as far down as the abdomen. The main motions are in the mouth and throat. Dry heaving may follow a bout of vomiting since the stomach is empty so there is nothing left to come up. Or it may precede vomiting as the body’s way of preparing for the main event.
What Causes Dry Heaving in Dogs?
As we said above, any condition that causes a dog to vomit can potentially cause dry heaving once the stomach is empty. So, things like the flu, parvo, pancreatitis, garbage gut, or toxin ingestion can all eventually lead to dry heaving. While these illnesses are all reason enough to get your pup to a vet, causes of dry heaving alone may be more emergency type situations. You’ll obviously be able to differentiate whether your pup is dry heaving alone or dry heaving following vomiting by, of course, noticing the vomiting, and by other symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and lethargy. Let’s dig into some of those causes of dry heaving now.
- Kennel cough: With a distinctive goose honking bark, kennel cough is more than just an annoyance to you and your pup. If severe enough, that body-racking coughing can actually cause your dog to dry heave. Kennel cough is extremely contagious so keep your sick dog quarantined or your other pups might start coughing until they dry heave as well.
- Tonsillitis/pharyngitis: Similar to kennel cough, inflammation of the tonsils or pharynx can cause extreme coughing, leading to dry heaving. Also, those swollen tonsils at the back of the throat are more likely to trigger a dog’s gag reflex, causing dry heaving.
- Foreign object in the throat: Foreign objects in the throat can be tricky to deal with. Most of the time they’re small enough to still allow air, water, and sometimes food to pass, but are obtrusive enough to cause coughing, gagging, and dry heaving. With these you will notice a sudden onset of gagging or dry heaving without any other symptoms. You may also notice that your pup has trouble swallowing, or refuses to eat altogether.
- Tumors: Although fairly rare, tumors that partially obstruct the throat can cause dry heaving. Similar to a foreign object in the throat, tumors can press on the air way or esophagus eliciting the gag reflex and dry heaving. These tumors usually have a more gradual onset and you may be able to feel them when you touch the throat.
- Gastric dilation-volvulus: A definite emergency situation, gastric dilation, or bloat, occurs when the stomach expands and twists out of position. As a result, food and gasses become trapped in the stomach causing painful inflation. If left untreated, the twisted stomach can actually cut off blood supply to itself and cause damage to other organs as it expands. These pups are usually pretty sick with dry heaving because the evacuation route of the stomach is blocked and severe pain of the abdomen as the stomach starts to expand.
Gastric dilation-volvulus occurs more commonly in deep chested dogs, like Dobermans, Great Danes, and Laboradors. While there is no concrete reason why this happens, it is suspected that exercise immediately following eating can cause the stomach to bloat and twist.
What Should You Do if Your Dog is Dry Heaving
Looking at the causes for dry heaving should lead you to believe that your dog needs to see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Gastric dilation-volvulus is a life threatening situation with a better prognosis the sooner your pup is seen. Tumors and foreign objects can also be life threatening if they are able to completely obstruct the air way. While kennel cough and tonsillitis aren’t necessarily life threatening, they are very contagious, so you’ll want to get your dog better quickly to avoid the spread to other pups.
Treatments for Dry Heaving in Dogs
The treatment that your veterinarian will choose to alleviate dry heaving in your dog is going to depend on the cause. Let’s break it down again.
- Kennel cough: Mild cases of kennel cough can be self-limiting, meaning they will clear up on their own with time. However, moderate to severe cases that cause dry heaving usually need further treatment. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and cough suppressants to cut down on the inflammation and therefore the cough and dry heaving. Again, quarantine your pup so that they don’t share their cough with others. Consider vaccinating your dog against kennel cough if they are at a high risk, such as if they’re frequent boarders, groomers, or dog park goers.
- Tonsillitis/pharyngitis: Same as kennel cough, your veterinarian may use all of the above. Depending on the case, steroids may also be in order to break the cycle since coughing and dry heaving cause inflammation which in turn causes coughing and dry heaving.
- Foreign object in the throat: Diagnosis of a foreign object in the throat may require x-rays or ultrasound. From there, surgery or endoscopy may be needed to remove the object. Depending on the amount of damage that the object has done, your pup could go home with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories as well.
- Tumors: There are a lot of important structures in the throat, think carotid artery and jugular vein, so the location of the tumor may dictate whether surgical removal is possible. Also, depending on the type of tumor your dog has, as well as size and location, may dictate whether your dog is a candidate for chemotherapy, radiation, or some other form of tumor reducer.
- Gastric dilation-volvulus: The main goal of treatment for gastric dilation-volvulus is to reduce the pressure in the stomach. Depending on the degree of twisting, your veterinarian may pass a stomach tube that will allow the air to escape or they may be required to do surgery to untwist and depress the stomach. The survival rate of gastric dilation-volvulus depends on the severity as well as how quickly a pup is treated.
A dog that is dry heaving shouldn’t be looked at with a sigh of relief-as in phew, there’s no mess to clean up. Instead, dry heaving is something that should trigger your concern and have you dialing your veterinarian’s number. That’s not to say that one simple heave means your dog has gastric dilation, but repetitions of the motion are worrisome especially if your pup is showing any other symptoms and if the dry heaving has a sudden onset.