Best Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs: What to Look For
By Emily Shiffer —
7 minute read
health + nutrition
Reviewed by Emily Luisana, DVM
If your dog has a sensitive stomach, dealing with their frequent gastrointestinal (GI) upset and related (messy, foul-smelling) symptoms can be as unpleasant for you as it is for your pup.
“Having at least one episode or GI-related visit to the vet per year is really common. I see it multiple times a day when I am in general practice,” says Tailored Pet Veterinary Advisor Emily Luisana, DVM. “Vomiting, regurgitation, bloating, diarrhea, anorexia (loss of appetite) and flatulence are all signs that your dog may have a sensitive stomach.”
If your dog regularly suffers from these symptoms, it can be hard to nail down the culprit. Diet is often the prime suspect, but there may be other factors at play, too. So it’s always best to consult with your veterinarian to rule out serious underlying health issues that require immediate treatment.
The good news is, once you figure out the root cause of your dog’s tummy troubles, in many cases, switching them to the best dog food for sensitive stomachs can help your pet live a healthy, happy, symptom-free existence.
What Causes Sensitive Stomachs in Dogs?
To address your dog’s stomach issues, you need to nail down what may be causing them in the first place in order to determine the right treatment. There are a number of factors that can trigger sensitive stomachs in dogs, including:
- Size - A 2016 study found that larger breeds of dogs tended to have higher digestive sensitivities, possibly because they have a larger digestive tract than smaller breeds. However, small breed dogs are not immune to stomach sensitivities, though the symptoms may look a bit different. The same study found that when smaller breeds experience digestive upset, they tend to suffer from constipation rather than diarrhea.
- Age - Senior pets are notoriously known for having stomach issues. That’s because as dogs age, their metabolism slows down and their ability to digest certain foods becomes compromised.
On the flip side, puppies can also be prone to having sensitive stomachs, primarily because they are often being introduced to new foods and environmental factors, says Dr. Luisana. This can be challenging, especially when compounded with other crucial nutritional requirements, like those of large breed puppies.
- Breed - Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to sensitive stomachs. Those include German Shepherds, Poodles, and Labrador Retrievers, says Dr. Luisana. Additionally, studies have shown that Collies, Basenjis, Shar Peis, Boxers, Irish Setters, and French Bulldogs are prone to intestinal disorders.
- Infection - If your dog is dealing with a stomach infection, gastroenteritis (which shows up in symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia) is a common side effect. And it could be caused by a number of bacteria, viruses, or parasites, according to a 2015 summary Left unchecked, infections can develop into serious and even fatal health conditions. That’s why it’s so important to work with a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Food Poisoning - Like humans, dogs are also prone to food poisoning, likely caused by spoiled or contaminated foods, eating toxic foods like onions, chocolate, or grapes, or ingesting too much of certain vitamins, such as vitamin D.
- Food Allergy/Intolerance/Sensitivity - If your pup has a food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity, stomach issues are a frontline indicator. But that doesn’t mean the same solution will work for all of these frequently confused terms. It’s important to understand what each one means in order to treat it effectively.
“The word 'allergy' is thrown around a lot and misused,” says Dr. Luisana. But for true allergies, there are some important distinctions. “The immune system is involved in an allergy,” she explains. “Allergies are typically triggered by a protein source (like beef, chicken, or dairy).” You may see signs of an allergic reaction outside the intestinal tract, such as itchy skin or ear infections. Environmental allergies can also cause signs similar to food allergies.
According to Dr. Luisana, “With an intolerance, the reaction is typically triggered by the digestive system.” That’s why you’ll see signs of GI upset related to what your dog is eating.
However, when it comes to determining whether your pet is allergic to a food or sensitive to it, things get complicated.
“We don’t have an accurate way to test for food sensitivities of any kind, there is no diagnostic shortcut,” says Dr. Luisana. “Pet allergy testing is still an area where research and science have to catch up on. They are not accurate enough yet.”
Instead, the gold standard to determine if your dog truly has a food allergy or sensitivity is to do a food elimination trial.
“The only real way to know is to remove a certain food from their diet for 3 months,” says Dr. Luisana. “If signs resolve during a food elimination trial and then reappear once the food is re-introduced, then we can diagnose a food-based sensitivity.”
And even then, pet parents may be left with more questions. “Allergies in dogs are similar to allergies in humans," notes Dr. Luisana. "If you have a child with a peanut allergy, for example, you need to look not only at the food itself, but also how it is made, such as examining the potential for cross-contamination during production, etc.”
Best Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs
Finding the right diet for your pup with a sensitive stomach can help alleviate those unwanted symptoms. Here are a few things to consider when searching for the best food:
- Ingredients that commonly trigger sensitivities - Before launching into an elimination diet, you may want to consider trying a dog food that doesn’t contain certain categories of ingredients known to upset digestion in some dogs.
“Food allergies are typically due to the protein in the food,” says Dr. Luisana. So you may want to steer clear of the proteins known to be common allergens for dogs, like beef, dairy, and chicken.
“However, intolerance or sensitivity can be caused by any ingredient,” continues Dr. Luisana. “Dogs can be sensitive to the carbohydrate or fiber sources in many foods. So consider foods with a different source of carbohydrates (e.g., rice, potatoes, lentils, peas, sweet potatoes, barley) or fiber (e.g., beet pulp, cellulose). In some cases, it may not be the actual ingredient but the amount of it, such as dogs who are intolerant to high levels of fat.”
- Novel proteins - “Novel proteins are proteins that your dog has never been exposed to in the past,” says Dr. Luisana. If your pet shows signs of sensitivity to food made from a more common protein source like chicken or beef, it’s worth considering a dog food made from proteins that are less commonly used in dog food, such as bison, duck, or wild boar.
- Limited Ingredient diets - The goal of limited ingredient diets is to get rid of any potential triggers your dog is exposed to in their food. “Eliminating the number of ingredients that could be causing issues is an easy way to protect sensitive stomachs,” says Dr. Luisana.
- Probiotics or prebiotics - You might also consider gut-healthy probiotic or prebiotic supplements for your pup.
“Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help establish healthy GI flora, while prebiotic fibers are food for probiotic bacteria. Together, they work in the gut synergistically,” explains Dr. Luisana.
How to Keep Your Dog’s Sensitive Stomach Happy
There are many types of tailored diets that you might consider when it comes to feeding your dog with a sensitive stomach. These include:
Prescription diet - “These are prescribed specifically by your dog’s veterinarian for specific health conditions or nutritional needs,” says Dr. Luisana. As the name suggests, you can’t just buy these off the shelf. You’ll need a prescription from your veterinarian first.
Home-cooked diet - Cooking your dog’s food for each meal sounds incredibly wholesome, but Dr. Luisana cautions that there’s more to DIY dog food than meets the eye. For one thing, some human foods are not safe for dogs. Also, you’d need to make sure what you’re feeding your pup meets all their nutritional requirements, which can be a tricky business. Dr. Luisana suggests discussing a plan with your dog’s veterinarian or board-certified veterinary nutritionist before attempting homemade meals, to avoid nutritional deficiencies or excesses.
Customized diet - To provide your pet with everything they need to stay healthy (and nothing that will upset their sensitive stomach), consider a diet that’s completely customized to their specific nutritional and overall health needs. Tailored Pet offers customized diet plans based on a personalized quiz that delves into age, size, breed, sensitivities, health and wellness goals, and your current dog food. The result is a perfectly balanced recipe that gently supports your dog’s sensitive system while giving them everything they need to thrive.
Feeding your dog a customized diet for their sensitive stomach can ultimately help alleviate stomach issues and may even be a good way to target other health issues they are dealing with. It’s a good idea to research what to look for in a customized diet, and always consult your veterinarian before making any major dietary changes to protect your dog’s nutrition and overall health.
“A sensitive stomach can have a wide variety of causes and considerations. Having someone guide you through the process and prioritize your concerns is key to gaining the most benefit of having a tailored diet,” says Dr. Luisana.
About the Author
Emily Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania and is a former online staff member at Men's Health and Prevention magazines. She writes for a multitude of publications, including Women's Health, Parade, SHAPE, and more. Emily loves all things antiques, cilantro, and American history. She grew up with two dachshunds and aspires to one day be a Doxie mom.