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Guard Against GERD During Winter

Winter, even the milder ones we experience here in the Bay Area, can be stressful for pets, and all that stress can be very bad for their stomachs and digestive tracts.

Pet owners with older pets, especially pets dealing with arthritis or other chronic inflammatory conditions, should consider how the dipping temperatures and wet weather can affect their dog’s health. Thermal stress, as well as an increase in joint pain, can and do present in winter and often lead to a spike in the release of stress hormones such as Cortisol. Cortisol can negatively impact your pet’s ability to concentrate urine and conserve body fluid, which can manifest as excess or too frequent urination. Additionally, heated, dry air can make pets predisposed to dehydration. Such inadequate hydration may lead to digestive problems, including GERD, which stands for gastroesophageal reflux disease.

If your dog suffers from this condition, he may have a variety or combination of symptoms including: anorexia or a poor appetite or the opposite, hyperexia, a ravenous appetite. He may have halitosis, a strong mouth smell. He may exhibit excess thirst or eat pica or grass. Your dog may also dig at his chest, armpits, or neck, and he may incessantly lick his front feet and forearms. There may be dry heaving, fluid or bile reflux, or food regurgitation or vomiting. Other predisposing factors for GERD are occult infections or dental pain; medications, including many anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving drugs, and other chronic degenerative diseases, which cause a decrease in the blood flow to the digestive organs.

You can help your older pet get through the winter. First, keep your dog warm. It may not seem cold to you, but remember, pets don’t usually wear clothes, so they have to rely on insulation from their coats and activities to maintain their core temperatures. The rule of thumb is that the smaller the pet is, the faster the rate of heat loss occurs. It’s also much cooler the closer you get to the ground, which is, of course, where our pets spend most of their time. Indoors, cool air can rush in along the floor when an outside door is opened, creating a cold draft that bothers your furry friend. Cold arthritic joints equal stiff painful joints. To make sure your pet does not get cold overnight, set up a covered crate; a heating pad can be placed underneath it. Additionally, you can try loose-fitting, comfortable clothes for minimizing you dog’s heat loss.

Help prevent and address joint pain by warming up cold, stiff joints in the morning with gentle, warming massage, focusing of stiff parts of the mid to lower back, hips, and knees. You can prevent some unwanted injuries by postponing high-impact activity such as jumping and fetching until after your pets has warmed up or loosened up.  Managing joint pain may involve several overlapping therapies such as joint and herbal anti-inflammatory supplements, anti-inflammatory medications, analgesic medications, and physical therapy. Physical therapy such as professional massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, cold laser, and swim therapy can do wonders for your dog.

As winter sets in, it’s super important to maintain hydration. Since dry air in winter and excess fluid loss
due to inflammatory illness lead to increased fluid loss, make sure your pets always have fresh water readily available. Many pets will enjoy low-salt broth even more. Some pet owners like to add water or low-salt broth to their dog’s kibble. To ensure proper winter hydration, you can try feeding more canned foods or embark on a homemade diet. The goal is to keep your pet’s nose and mouth moist, as this usually indicates good blood supply to mucous membranes of organs involved in digestion. Serious dehydration may need to be treated by administering sterile fluids either via intravenous catheter or under the skin.

If you see any GERD symptoms, they definitely need to be addressed. If you notice those symptoms described here, contact your veterinary professional to help determine the combination of factors predisposing to digestive problems. There are some simple remedies, like adding extra fluids to meals to improve hydration; offering smaller but more frequent meals; feeding cooling/coating snacks such as fruit, vegetables, and dairy products; adding herbal coating agents such as slippery elm powder; and medications to decrease stomach acid production. Serious or recurrent GERD symptoms may need to be treated with combination of those approaches and include fluid treatment.

Geriatric patients can be fragile; they get stressed and fall ill easily. Most dogs (and cats) want to appear strong and happy to their owners and over time get really good at hiding symptoms of distress. What they can’t hide is the impact of stress on digestive health. Look out for GERD symptoms, and communicate with your veterinarian to address them quickly. Older pets don’t always rebound spontaneously or swiftly; hence, they are more prone to severe crisis, which could quickly become life threatening.

Adam Piaseczny, D.V.M, leads the team of Healthy Pets Veterinary Hospital, a four-doctor integrative practice in the West Portal neighborhood of San Francisco. He lives in adjacent Sunnyside with his partner, 4-year-old-daughter Sofia, two dogs (Ricky and J.J.), and 2 cats (Chica and Chala). He is a graduate of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, class of 2000, and he received acupuncture certification from Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2006.

Are you a San Francisco Bay Area veterinarian who would like to write an article for the Ask Dr. Dog column, which is authored by guest veterinarians practicing in the Bay Area? Bay Woof is accepting submissions. Send email to


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Main article photo by: Photo by Lindsay Helms