Common Health Problems affecting Dogs and Cats

Veterinary advice from John Burns BVMS MRCVS

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It goes without saying that all organ systems are important to the continued well-being of the body as a whole. But the role of the digestive system is probably the most important.

A healthy digestive system underpins the function of the whole system by digesting and absorbing nutrients, neutralising toxins and infective agents and eliminating waste and unwanted products.

Along with skin disease the digestive tract is the organ system most frequently affected by dietary intolerance. This means correct dietary choice is one of the most effective ways of treating and avoiding digestive disorders.

The common symptoms of digestive problems are
loose bowel motions; occasional vomiting; abdominal discomfort; straining; passing blood or mucus; flatulence.

The most dramatic and frightening manifestation of a disordered digestive system must surely be gastric bloat and its partner gastric torsion. These affect the large, deep-chested breeds such as German Shepherd and Great Dane. An affected dog will often collapse and die of shock before treatment can be given.

Whether the diagnosis is colitis, enteritis, gastro-enteritis, indigestion, allergy, infection etc the problem can usually be attributed to one cause – Improper diet.

Traditionally, a high-fibre diet is usually recommended for treating most digestive disorders. My experience does not bear this out. A few diseases e.g. constipation may be better managed by higher fibre diet but I find that most cases benefit from a highly digestible diet. This is digested and absorbed in the small intestine so that a minimum of material reaches the lower end of the gut. Not only does this promote the health of the digestive system it means that less faeces are produced which is more convenient to the owner and beneficial to the environment.

Digestive upset is often blamed on a diet being “too rich”. This is a myth which some manufacturers are happy to perpetuate because it implies that their food is of a very high quality. The reality is generally the reverse of this. Low quality foods containing indigestible or unsuitable ingredients are more likely to cause problems than foods which contain easily digested materials.

For example, many pet foods use soya or other vegetable proteins which are difficult to digest, rather than animal proteins which are more easily digested. Wheat is much more difficult to digest than rice, and many dogs seem to be intolerant of wheat. Flaked foods consist of hot-rolled cereals, which are only partly cooked and are therefore more difficult to digest.

The best food to promote healthy digestive function should be easily digested, high in complex carbohydrate with moderate levels of protein and fat. This is best achieved by a diet based on cooked whole, unrefined cereal grains, with a fairly low meat and fat content.

Feeding amounts should be kept to the minimum necessary to satisfy requirements. Excessive food intake is the surest way of ruining the health and effective function of the digestive tract.


Common pet health problems
John Burns Pet Health Management Programme






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