What Is The Best Pet Food for a Sensitive Stomach?

22 NOV 2020

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc (Hons)

Does your pet have a touchy tummy? Digestive issues, particularly chronic and unresolving cases, are among the most common reasons that cats and dogs are examined at the vet for.

While acute issues that cause vomiting (such as Pancreatitis) or severe, sudden onset diarrhoea (for example, viruses like Parvovirus) are considered a medical emergency, chronic mild issues that may only cause occasional issues require a different approach.

Skip to a section:

What are the symptoms of a sensitive stomach?
What Are The Causes of A Sensitive Stomach?
1. Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets
2. Non-Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets
3. Hypoallergenic / Hydrolysed Diets
4. Home-cooked diets
5. Treats for a sensitive stomach

Royal Canin Digestive Care for Dogs

Available for 'mini', 'medium', or 'maxi' dogs, and in 'wet' and 'dry' options, this diet is enriched with nutrients to help support sensitive tummies.

Royal Canin Digestive Care for Cats

Made from highly digestible ingredients, this premium wet cat food is ideal for cats with digestive sensitivities and also helps to reduce faecal odour.

What are the symptoms of a sensitive stomach?

Every pet's belly is different. Some pets with a sensitive stomach may experience 'on and off' bouts of chronic mild loose stool or gas, while other may experience less frequent but more severe instances with vomiting. Your pet may experience small bouts of tummy upsets in response to a rich treat and quickly improve, while others can become seriously unwell. If gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhoea continue for an ongoing period, it can lead to weight loss, dehydration, and electrolyte depletion.

When to seek veterinary attention

You should seek immediate veterinary attention if:
- Your pet is vomiting
- Any loose stool persists for more than 2 days at a time
- The stool is watery
- The stool contains blood or mucus
- Your dog is lethargic, off their food, or vomiting
- Your dog is a puppy

What Causes a Sensitive Stomach in Dogs and Cats?

1. The Wrong Diet

Never underestimate the value of good quality nutrition. A common cause of a sensitive stomach is poor nutrition. Poor quality, cheap diets are made from low quality ingredients and are harder to digest. This leads to chronic issues - particularly 'landmine' sloppy stools and excessive farting!

A little variety from a young age can help. It's often said that 'a sudden change in your pet's diet can cause diarrhoea'. However, this is usually more common and severe in pets who have been fed one diet exclusively their entire life, as their tummies aren't used to change. To avoid this sensitivity, a gentle rotational diet when your pet is young can help prime their belly, making it more adaptable to changes. The ideal rotation diet generally involves keeping a couple of premium, balanced diets (preferably with different meat proteins) on hand an alternating between them every few days. It is also suspected that a rotation diet can reduce the change of food allergies developing later in life..

Raw meat can hinder - On the other end of the spectrum, raw meat diets and bones are common causes of diarrhoea and sensitive stomachs in pets. This brings us to our next point...

2. Bacterial Contamination

Your pet may have a sensitive tummy secondary to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their gut. This can occur after an initial bout of food poisoning from eating something they shouldn't have, or from other 'bad habits' - such as eating dead animals or wild animal faeces!

As mentioned above, if you have been feeding your pet a diet containing raw meat or bones, this could be the cause of their tummy issues. Raw meat poses a very high risk of harmful bacteria including Campylobacter and Salmonella. These pathogens can even spread from your dog to your family. In fact, the risk of this bacteria spreading to humans is so high that the FDA strongly advises against feeding your dog a raw food diet if there is anyone immunosuppressed in the household such as pregnant women, children, or the elderly.

3. Antibiotic Treatment

A chronically sensitive stomach can sometimes occur after a course of antibiotics, particularly if your pet was treated early in life. This is a common cause of diarrhoea in cats, as many kittens from rescue shelters are treated with antibiotics for cat flu at a young age.

Antibiotics can disrupt the beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, which can commonly lead to digestive issues. It's long been established that the right balance of microorganisms in the gut plays an important role in digestive health. After a course of antibiotics, you should consider a probiotic designed for animals like Paw Blackmores Digesticare or Protexin Powder.

Paw Blackmores Digesticare

PAW Blackmores DigestiCare is a multi-strain, multi-species probiotic and wholefood powder for the maintenance of everyday digestive health in dogs, cats and other companion animals.

Protexin Powder

Protexin Powder contains 7 different strains of bacteria that are proven to be effective and work in synergy to help maintain a healthy microflora population in the gut.

4. Food sensitivities or allergies

Much like their human owners, dogs may also have dietary sensitivities or food intolerances which can result in a sensitive stomach. Intolerances in dogs generally develop over time and are associated with common proteins found in many commercially prepared dog foods including chicken, dairy and wheat.

If you suspect that your dog may have a food allergy or intolerance, consult with your vet regarding the best course of action. They may recommend a dietary trial using an elimination diet which is specifically formulated to be hypoallergenic.

5. Other conditions

Medical conditions of other organ systems may also cause your pet to suffer from chronic gastrointestinal issues. Particularly, Pancreatitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), and disorders of the liver or adrenal glands can commonly be seen to cause gastrointestinal issues in dogs. In cats, more common culprits include kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and stress and anxiety.

Oftentimes if your pet has experienced a gastrointestinal issue in the past which resolved, they may forever be left with a sensitive tummy and never be able to tolerate rich foods or sudden changes to their diet. This is a common consequence of pancreatitis, which can leave dogs incredibly sensitive to fat.

6. Parasites

Parasites such as intestinal worms and protozoa are a cause of gastrointestinal issues in cats and dogs. While most species usually cause acute symptoms - such as bloody stool, vomiting, or watery diarrhoea - there are some parasites which may cause general weight loss and ongoing mild gastrointestinal signs. To rule out parasites, always keep your pet's parasite prevention up to date.

What is the Best Diet for a Sensitive Stomach?

"For pets with a food sensitivity or allergy, the primary goal is to feed them a diet free from the causal allergen.

For pets with most other digestive issues the primary goal is more about restricting fat and providing easily digestible ingredients."

The Different Types of Sensitive Stomach Diets

Dietary therapy is crucial for the effective management of a sensitive stomach, both in the short and long term. In general, there are four major categories of pet food that may help your pet with their sensitive stomach:

1. Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

2. Non-Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

3. Hypoallergenic diets

We've outlined each category below, discussed which type of pet each is suitable for, and given our top recommendations.

1. Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

See All Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

Suitable for: SEVERE CONDITIONS, TREATMENT of active issues, and MANAGEMENT of some conditions to reduce flare ups

Less suitable for: MILD, OCCASIONAL LOOSE STOOL OR GAS- in general these conditions may suit a Retail gastrointestinal diet.

A veterinary gastrointestinal diet is the gold standard for treating severe or acute cases, and may be used long term to reduce the recurrence of severe issues such as pancreatitis. Some veterinary gastrointestinal diets may also be suitable for the management of mild issues, such as Hills Gastrointestinal Biome, which uses promotes an optimal balance of gastrointestinal microflora.

How do they work? Veterinary-level gastrointestinal diets typically contain highly digestible proteins, a low fat content* and an ideal blend of soluble and insoluble fibre to help your pet recover from gastrointestinal illness. They usually also have high levels of electrolytes, B vitamins, and antioxidants to support your pet's immune system. These diets have been formulated under pharmaceutical grade conditions, which means that the manufacturer has undertaken extra processing steps to ensure optimal nutrition.

Please note: Diets from this category are Veterinary-prescribed only, and should be used under the direction from your vet. For advice on veterinary diets, contact our Vet Squad.

* fat content can vary between formulas. Always check with your vet before selecting a diet.

Top Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

Royal Canin Gastrointestinal

With a number of different cat and dog formulas available including wet food, low fat, hairball, and high fibre, these veterinary diets are highly digestible and contain beneficial ingredients to reduce the workload of the digestive tract.

Hill's Prescription Diet i/d

Available in range of different recipes for cats and dogs, including a low fat formulation, i/d is frequently recommended for conditions such as pancreatitis and IBD.

Hill's Prescription Diet Gastrointestinal Biome

This revolutionary formulation prioritises the good bacteria in the gut, with a proprietary fibre blend to nourish and activate the gut microbiome for improved digestive health and wellbeing.

Royal Canin Sensitivity Control

Perfect for animals with sensitive skin AND stomach, these formulas can assist with food intolerances, and help manage inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhoea and colitis.

2. Non-Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

See All Non-Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets

Suitable for: MILD / CHRONIC conditions - Including transient gas, occasional loose stool, or generalised sensitivities.

Less suitable for: ACUTE / SEVERE conditions, FOOD ALLERGIES, PANCREATITIS. Food allergy dogs are better suited to a hydrolysed or a novel protein diet.

For the purpose of this classification, 'Non-Veterinary Gastrointestinal Diets' refers to those diets which are available at a retail level, without a vet prescription, but are still formulated for the purpose of providing extra digestive support. Generally these are considered to be highly digestible 'everyday' diets.

These 'general digestive care' diets are perfect for pets who have mild but persistent stomach issues such as gas, occasional loose stool, and general sensitivities. Not sure about whether your pet needs a prescription or a retail diet? Learn more about the difference between retail and prescription pet diets.

How do they work? Retail 'Sensitive Stomach' pet foods do differ slightly in their recipes, but in general they tend to boast:
- Highly digestible proteins to reduce dietary upsets
- Dietary fibres help to nourish gut bacteria
- Omega 3 fatty acids (including EPA and DHA), which have a proven antiinflammatory effect
- Antioxidants

Top Non-Veterinary Sensitive Stomach Diets

Royal Canin Digestive Care

Available for cats, 'mini', 'medium', or 'maxi' dogs, as well as both wet and dry formulas, the range from Royal Canin is specifically formulated for targeted care of the digestive tract.

Hills Science Diet Sensitive Skin and Stomach

The range from Hills contains beneficial antioxidants, as well as extra omega fatty acids, to help support the skin. This particular diet is also highly digestible, to help dogs with sensitive digestion.

Advance Sensitive Skin and Digestion

The sensitive range from Advance is designed with Aussie pets in mind. A natural source of colostrum is included to help maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract and is combined with turkey.

Pro Plan Sensitive Digestion

Pro Plan's range of sensitive stomach diets includes an option for puppies. Fortified with a prebiotic to improve microflora balance, as well as colostrum for enhanced immunity.

3. Hydrolysed Allergy Diets

See All Hydrolysed Therapeutic Diets

Suitable for: FOOD ALLERGIES - Elimination trials to diagnose a food allergy / Maintenance diet for some dogs with food allergies

Less suitable for: Acute gastrointestinal upset, or mild transient issues - in general these conditions can be most benefited from a Vet Gastrointestinal Diet or a Retail Gastrointestinal Diet.

A hydrolysed veterinary diet is the gold standard for completing an elimination diet trial. An elimination diet trial may be recommended by your vet to help determine whether your pet has a true food allergy. It involves feeding nothing but the hydrolysed diet for a few weeks, and then introducing one new protein every week to 'test' whether your dog has a reaction. In some cases, a hydrolysed diet may be fed long term if a dog is found to be overly sensitive and the diet is the only thing that gives them relief.

How do they work? Hydrolysed diets typically contain protein that has undergone a process called 'hydrolysation' - this is where the protein structure is broken down into its component amino acids. Hydrolysation is a process that reduces the 'allergenicity' of the protein, making it so small that it's unlikely to trigger an immune reaction. Diets that fall into this category are Prescription and Veterinary diets and can therefore only be recommended by your veterinarian.

Please note: Diets from this category are Veterinary-prescribed only, and should be used under the direction from your vet. For advice on veterinary diets, contact our Vet Squad.

Top Hydrolysed Diets

Royal Canin Anallergenic

Using a hydrolysed feather protein source, this diet is currently the gold standard for diagnosing and managing food allergies.

Royal Canin Hypoallergenic

Great for diagnosing and managing food allergies, this diet may more cost-effective for large breed dogs who tolerate a soy-based diet.

Hill's Prescription Diet Z/D

This completely hydrolysed diet is perfect for elimination trials. It includes essential fatty acids and clinically proven antioxidants.

Royal Canin Sensitivity Control

Combining a hydrolysed protein with a novel protein (duck) and carbohydrate (tapioca), this diet may be suitable for sensitive skin or stomach.

What are the drawbacks of a hydrolysed protein diet?
1. The cost. As you can imagine, the extra processing and care taken to produce these diets isn't cheap
2. Reduced palatability
3. Lack of evidence documenting whether pets allergic to the parent protein will actually tolerate a hydrolysed product
4. Some diets are contraindicated in puppies, pregnant and lactating dogs
5. May not be suitable for dogs with pancreatitis
6. A veterinary prescription is required before purchasing. Click here to find the diet recommended by your veterinarian

4. What About A Home-Cooked Diet?

Preparing your pet's food at home might sound like a good option and there are certainly some benefits. You'll know exactly what is going in to the food, and can be sure there are no hidden pet food additives or contamination with other protein sources.

In the short term, for treating acute flare ups, home cooking may be suitable to help provide your pet with a bland, low fat diet. A particularly popular recipe for acute digestive issues is boiled chicken breast (with no skin or fat) and white rice.

However, long term home cooking is not recommended. It can be difficult to balance without the help of a veterinary nutritionist. This makes it not ideal for growing animals or pregnant females. If you choose to home cook your dog's food, we recommend discussing some balanced recipes with your vet.

5. Treats for a Sensitive Stomach

We've discussed food, but what about treats that are suitable for a sensitive stomach? While most commercially available treats are considered too rich for a sensitive tummy, fortunately there are some options available. Your fur baby certainly doesn't have to miss out on tasty treats just because of their touchy tummy.

For dogs, the trick is to source a vegetarian treat. Vegetarian treats are often low in fat, particularly animal fats (which commonly set off the pancreas). See our top suggestions below.

Cats can be a little trickier, as most commercial cat treats are rich and contain meat. Plus, a sensitive feline belly is a little less predictable than dogs, and it may not be the fat content that irritates them, but a change in their regular diet. Generally, we recommend a little trial-and-error with cats - you may wish to start with an easily digestible treat like plain boiled chicken breast, and try a healthy treat like Greenies to see how they tolerate it.

  • - Whimzees - this great brand produces Dutch-made, potato-based treats including vegetarian 'ears'.
  • - Greenies these Aussie-made treats are vegetarian and come in a variety of sizes and flavours.
  • - Fruit such as apple or strawberries
  • - Vegetables such as carrots, peas, or corn

Always check with your veterinarian before choosing a suitable treat.

The bottom line is this - what works for your dog might not work for another and vice versa. In all cases, it's important to work with your veterinarian to work out which diet is truly hypoallergenic for your pet.

Read More

Pancreatitis in Dogs

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Ethically-Made and Sustainable Pet Food

How To Judge a Good Dog Food

How to Cure Your Dog's Skin Allergies