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How to Choose a Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs

Help alleviate your pup's upset tummy or digestive issues with these tips on dog food for sensitive stomachs, ingredients and supplements, and feeding habits.

How to Choose a Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs

Help alleviate your pup's upset tummy or digestive issues with these tips on dog food for sensitive stomachs, ingredients and supplements, and feeding habits.

Stomachs are sensitive. This is true for our dogs, and it's true for us. You'll experience stomach pain many times throughout your life. And while pain in any other organ, like your lungs or kidneys, would send you speeding to the hospital, an occasional upset stomach isn't usually cause for concern. The same goes for our dogs. 

If our dogs experience an upset stomach every couple of months, they likely have a normal, functioning digestive system. If, however, your dog suffers from an upset stomach, flatulence, or loose stool multiple times a week, they may have a sensitive stomach. And if your dog ever experiences diarrhea or vomiting that lasts for more than 48 hours, contact your vet. This could be a sign of a more serious health issue like a bacterial infection or a parasite. 

If your dog is suffering from a sensitive stomach, a change in their diet can often improve their gut health. You may need to switch them to a dog food for sensitive stomachs, or you may need to remove or add ingredients into your dog's diet

Here's a look at the best foods for dogs with sensitive stomachs and when you should try each option. 

The Best Dog Food for Sensitive Stomachs, Plus Other Feeding Options 

Dog food for sensitive stomach: dog in the middle of pumpkins

Choosing the best sensitive stomach dog food for your pup's digestive issues isn't as simple as declaring one dog food better than the rest. There are a lot of different pet food formulas on the market and knowing how each of them can affect your pooch's digestive health will allow you to select the best dog food for them. 

These are the best feeding options for healthy digestion. Full disclosure: Some of them aren't dog foods at all, but every one of them can make a big difference in your dog's digestive health. The one that works for your dog will depend on their individual issues.

Add Pumpkin to Your Dog's Diet 

Pumpkin (plus other healthy orange vegetables like sweet potato) is loaded with easy-to-digest fiber. It helps promote healthy digestion and is safe enough to use every day. This air-dried pumpkin powder for dogs is easy to keep on hand. Unlike canned pumpkin, it won't go bad in your fridge if you only need it a few times a week.  

Try Chicken and White Rice 

If your dog experiences intermittent stomach issues, especially if their primary symptom is loose stool or diarrhea, then you can switch them to a short-term diet made up of two parts white rice and one part white meat chicken. 

This combination is easy to digest and can give your pet's stomach the break it needs to recover. But, chicken and white rice is not a complete and balanced meal, so you should never feed it to your dog for more than 48 hours at a time. If your dog's symptoms haven't improved after 48 hours, contact your vet. 

Include an Omega-3 Oil 

Research in humans suggests that we need to eat a diet with equal proportions of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids — otherwise, we can experience inflammation and other health issues. Unfortunately, most people get way too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s because of the added vegetable oils in fried and processed foods. 

We don't fully understand all of the ways that dogs’ nutritional needs differ from ours. We certainly hope most dogs aren't eating fried foods, but like processed human foods, many processed dog foods contain added omega-6s in the form of flaxseed oil or other vegetable oils, which could be creating an unbalanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. And studies in dogs show that omega-3s can help decrease inflammation, a common cause of chronic stomach issues. 

You can help promote your dog's healthy digestion by adding an omega-3 oil to their food.

Use a Probiotic Supplement 

There's a well-established connection between gut bacteria and inflammation that leads to digestive issues and other health conditions. Essentially, when the gut is healthy, there's more good bacteria than bad. That good bacteria helps break down food, fight off harmful bacteria, and prevent inflammation. 

Probiotics are good bacteria that can help support your pet's gut health — think of using probiotic supplements as sending in reinforcements in the fight against bad bacteria.

Probiotics can help address most sensitive stomachs regardless of the cause — whether it's food related or not. They can help keep your dog's stomach steady in the face of not only new foods, but also stress and anxiety. 

Choose a High-Quality Dog Food 

Kibble is a highly processed product. It's cooked, extruded, and preserved to give it an extended shelf life. Think of it as a cereal. While all cereal is highly processed, you can still buy healthier and less healthy cereals. There's a big difference between eating Fruit Loops and eating Grape Nuts. So if you choose dry dog food, you'll want to avoid the dog-equivalent of Fruit Loops and opt for the healthiest, highest-quality formula. 

Avoid dog food with artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, and look for recipes that don't contain by-products and meat meals like chicken meal. Instead, choose a food that lists real meat as the first ingredient. To protect your pet's immune system, select a recipe that includes antioxidants like vitamin E or superfood ingredients that naturally contain antioxidants (like whole fruits and vegetables). 

Always choose a formula designed for your dog's breed size and life stage. If a food is labeled "all life stages," you can feed it to puppies, adult dogs, and senior dogs. Small breed and large breed dogs may also need different foods because they're susceptible to different health problems.   

Choose foods that are made in the USA or another country with high food-safety standards, like Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, or Thailand. If you can't find a dry dog food that both you and your dog approve of, you can opt for wet dog food — but you'll need to check the label for the same quality concerns. 

Look for Whole-Grain Formulas 

While many dogs lack the enzymes they need to digest wheat, other whole-grain carbohydrates — like brown rice and barley — are essential to a healthy dog's diet

Dogs are omnivores, and whole-grain carbs not only add essential nutrients to their diet, they also provide prebiotic fiber. This type of fiber serves as food for the good bacteria in your dog's gut, helping that bacteria become stronger and better able fight off bad bacteria. 

For a tummy-friendly, whole-grain dog food, look for an oat, pearled barley, or brown rice formula. Avoid grain-free recipes, which are currently under investigation by the FDA because of a suspected link between grain-free dog food and heart disease.

Test a Limited Ingredient Diet 

A limited ingredient diet (LID) dog food is a good tool for diagnosing food allergies. In addition to a sensitive stomach, food allergies can cause sensitive skin. Healthy digestion paired with healthy skin will be signs your LID dog food is working.

Dogs with food allergies often see improvements on limited ingredient diets because these formulas have a very small number of ingredients. However, this also means your dog won't benefit from a wide variety of whole foods (and the natural nutrients that come with them). We recommend using LID dog food as a short-term solution to identify what your pet is allergic to. Once you finish testing for allergies, you can reintroduce all but the ingredient your dog is allergic to. 

Ask About a Veterinary Diet 

Veterinary diets can be expensive, and while some dogs feel better on these formulas, many of the recipes offer little more than dry dog food combined with a targeted multivitamin. 

For example, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Low Fat formula is made up of low-fat dry dog food, combined with a probiotic and omega-3 fatty acids. This recipe costs nearly $100 for a 28.6-pound bag and will require your vet's approval every time you want to reorder. Before you switch to a prescription dog food, ask your vet if there are any easier alternatives — like a higher-quality non-prescription food and all-natural supplements.  

Aside from sensitive stomach formulas, you can also get hydrolyzed protein veterinary diets from brands like Royal Canin Veterinary Diets, Hill's Prescription Diet, and Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets. 

Dog food made with hydrolyzed protein features an easily digestible protein source. The most common cause of digestive issues in dogs isn't grains or gluten, it's a protein source like chicken, fish, or beef. Hydrolyzed protein is already partially broken down, making it easier for your dog's body to digest.

Although it often comes with the same high price tag as other veterinary diets, a hydrolyzed protein formula is harder to recreate yourself and can help dogs with protein sensitivities. If you're going to invest in a veterinary diet, this could be a better option than a generic sensitive stomach formula. 

If the new diet is helping, your dog's symptoms should improve within 30 days of you starting to feed this recipe exclusively. If your dog's symptoms don't improve, there's no reason to keep paying for a veterinary diet. 

Skip the Table Scraps 

Dogs with sensitive tummies often experience digestive distress after they've eaten a lot of human food. If your dog gets their share of table scraps, try going cold turkey — by not giving them any cold turkey or other scraps — for a month. 

If your dog's symptoms clear up, you can try offering them small bites of fresh food once in a while to see if they can tolerate a little bit of human food. Be careful not to give your dog leftovers that are too old for you to eat. While some dogs can clear out leftovers without so much as a single dog fart, others need more careful digestive care

Use a Slow Feeder

A slow feeder is a bowl with built-in obstacles. Your dog needs to eat around the obstacles to get to their food, which makes them take small bites and eat more slowly. This can help dogs avoid the upset stomach and other unpleasant side effects (like throwing up undigested food) that come from eating too fast.  

Find the Right Solution for Sensitive Stomachs 

Labrador eating from his food bowl

Changing what and the way you feed your dog can help with their sensitive stomach. But food isn't the only factor; behaviors like eating too fast and emotions like stress and anxiety can also lead to an upset stomach. Before you make the switch to a dog food for sensitive stomachs, try an easier intervention. 

Start by cutting out table scraps, try a slow feeder, and support your dog's digestive system with all-natural supplements like pumpkin, omega-3 oil, and probiotics for dogs. If your dog suffers from stress and anxiety, use an all-natural Calm Chew to help keep them and their stomach settled.

For more information on your dog's health and wellness, check out the Native Pet blog.
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