Like humans, dogs and cats can suffer from stomach ulcers. There are many causes of stomach ulcers in dogs and cats, we will discuss these below. Keep reading below as we will explain the causes of stomach ulcers in dogs and cats, how they are diagnosed and how they can be treated. 

A stomach ulcer is an open sore on the inner surface of the stomach lining. The stomach is responsible for producing acidic juices that help digest and breakdown the food your pet eats. An intact stomach lining is brilliant at protecting the stomach from the damaging effects of this acid.

When there is damage to the stomach lining, the acid contents can injure the inner layers of the stomach. This further perpetuates the problem, as the ulcer struggles to heal in this environment. If you are worried that your pet may have a stomach ulcer, contact your vet for advice.

What are the symptoms of stomach ulcers in dogs and cats?

A stomach ulcer typically results in symptoms related to the gastrointestinal system such as nausea, vomiting, inappetence, weight loss and pain. Nausea may present itself as drooling (dogs and cats) or licking lips (dogs). The vomit may contain food, bile or blood. The blood contained within vomit may be fresh (bright red) or digested (looks like coffee grounds). The blood that is leaking from a stomach ulcer may be digested and appear within the faeces as black and tarry stools. When there has been chronic and significant blood loss from an ulcer, your pet may appear pale and this is due to anaemia (low red blood cell count). Pets in pain may be lethargic, reluctant to move or display a prayer position. A prayer position is typically seen in dogs with stomach pain.

What causes stomach ulcers?

A variety of reasons for stomach ulcers exist:

  • Medications – such as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), commonly used as painkillers or steroids, especially if used in the long-term. It is important that if your dog or cat is taking these medications and is vomiting, you should stop giving the medication immediately and speak to your vet. 
  • Bacterial infections – such as Helicobacter, have been suggested to cause stomach ulcers in cats and dogs however its causal role is not entirely clear.   
  • Stomach cancer – such as adenocarcinoma, can cause damage to the stomach lining, causing an ulcer.
  • Underlying conditions – such as kidney disease, which can lead to a build-up of toxins in the blood that can damage the stomach lining. 
  • Sharp/abrasive foreign bodies – if ingested by pets can cause damage to the stomach lining and a subsequent stomach ulcer. 

How are stomach ulcers diagnosed?

Your vet may be suspicious of a stomach ulcer if your pet has the compatible clinical signs and an underlying condition (e.g. diagnosis of kidney failure) or if your pet has been on long-term medications such as NSAIDs. If your pet’s condition is mild, your vet may decide to provide treatment for stomach ulcers without obtaining a diagnosis. 

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If your vet is concerned about a serious underlying disease, for example, cancer, or if your pet has not responded to initial treatment, then they may recommend diagnostic tests such as x-rays, ultrasound or endoscopy. Endoscopy is the use of a camera or ‘magic eye’ that is placed down your pet’s throat whilst they are under general anaesthetic. The camera is then passed down the food pipe (oesophagus) and into the stomach. Endoscopy allows the direct visualisation of the inner surface of the stomach and helps diagnose stomach ulcers. 

Biopsies, where samples of tissue are collected can also be obtained during endoscopy. The samples of tissue are then sent to a laboratory where they are analysed and reported back to your vet, usually within a week. The underlying cause of your pet’s stomach ulcer may be diagnosed by collecting stomach tissue biopsies. 

The biopsies obtained via endoscopy are superficial, in that they only sample the surface of the inner stomach lining. Occasionally full-thickness biopsies of the stomach are necessary for diagnosis; however, full-thickness biopsies are obtained via exploratory laparotomy. An exploratory laparotomy simply means an operation, where a vet opens your pet’s abdomen (belly) to explore its contents. 

How are stomach ulcers treated?

Stomach ulcers are often treated with a combination of gastro-protectant and acid-blocking medication. Medications such as omeprazole are often used. This temporarily reduces the stomach acid pH to allow the stomach ulcer to heal. Other medications, such as sucralfate simply help coat the stomach ulcer, offering it protection from the damaging stomach acid thus supporting healing. Treatment of Helicobacter may require the addition of an antibiotic. 

More complicated ulcers will require treatment of any underlying diseases. For example, pets that may be suffering from stomach ulcers as a result of kidney disease will need treatment to manage the kidney disease in addition to the stomach ulcer itself. Treatment of kidney disease includes feeding a special ‘kidney diet’ and providing fluids via a drip if significant dehydration is present. 

It is important to stop medications such as NSAIDs if they cause your pet to vomit. Speak to your vet if this occurs as it may be necessary to give your pet an alternative painkiller. If your pet starts to vomit on steroid medications, do not stop these abruptly as this may cause harm to your pet. Speak to your vet for advice if your pet is vomiting on steroid medications. It may be necessary to taper your pet off steroid medication with a gradually reducing dose.

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Will my pet get better?

Most stomach ulcers will heal successfully using gastro-protectant and acid-blocking medications. If there is an underlying reason for your pet’s stomach ulcer, such as an infection, disease or cancer, then your vet may recommend further investigations. If an underlying condition is present, then that condition must be treated in addition to the stomach ulcer itself. Your vet will be able to discuss your pet’s condition and the best course of action for their treatment.

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