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Why Do German Shepherds Have Sensitive Stomachs? 13 Causes

Most German Shepherds are fit and healthy dogs with a lifespan of between 9-13 years, but unfortunately, the German Shepherd breed is known for having a sensitive stomach and digestive problems. So, why do German Shepherds have sensitive stomachs?

German Shepherds have sensitive stomachs due to genetics or may develop sensitivity or digestive problems later in life. These can range from mild diarrhea caused by a sensitivity to a particular food to more serious and life-threatening conditions such as bloat, pancreatitis, or IBD.

This is my comprehensive guide to why your German Shepherd may suffer from a sensitive stomach. You’ll also learn…

  • Causes of digestive problems in German Shepherds
  • How to prevent a sensitive stomach in your GSD
  • What to feed a German Shepherd with a sensitive stomach
Why Do German Shepherds Have Sensitive Stomachs? German Shepherd lying on the couch
My German Shepherd with a mild tummy upset – feeling sorry for herself!

For an in-depth look at sensitive stomachs in German Shepherds, read on!

Are German Shepherds Prone to Stomach Issues?

A “sensitive stomach” in German Shepherds usually means that the dog has a mild stomach upset. So, are German Shepherds prone to stomach issues?

German Shepherds are prone to stomach issues and are, unfortunately, known to have more digestive problems than other breeds. Symptoms include irregular loose stools or diarrhea, vomiting, and lots of gas. Most stomach issues are usually harmless and often settle down by themselves.

However, sometimes digestive problems in German Shepherds do not go away and become more than just mild and intermittent. This is when you should take your dog to see a veterinarian to rule out anything more sinister.

A sensitive stomach all centers around digestion – when your dog’s food and water are broken down into nutrients that they can absorb to use as energy, growth, or cell repair. Some German Shepherds can eat almost anything with no adverse effects, and some dogs are a lot more sensitive.

I suppose they are just like humans, really as not everyone can eat a vindaloo curry – I know I certainly can’t! My German Shepherd is sensitive to some dairy foods such as cream. The lactose in cream causes her to have diarrhea. However, she can tolerate and enjoys a small amount of milk.

Some dogs may have a food allergy, for example, an allergy to chicken, dairy, wheat, or egg. However, many serious digestive problems can affect your German Shepherd’s stomach and intestines which can be debilitating.

It’s important to know about some of these, especially bloat (GDV), a serious condition that can kill your dog in hours if left untreated.

Many digestive disorders can also lead to dehydration and malnutrition, so it’s equally important to recognize the signs of something more serious and consult with your vet.

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I have listed below 13 disorders that can cause your German Shepherd to experience sensitive stomach or digestive problems. They include infectious diseases (whether bacterial, viral, or parasitic) but also non-infectious disorders, such as obstruction, tumors, or bloat. So, let’s get straight into the nasty stuff!

1. Bloat (GDV)

Are German Shepherds Prone to Bloat? X-ray of dog with bloat (gastric dilatation-volvulus, GDV)
X-ray of a dog with bloat – the red double bubble pattern indicates stomach torsion.

I thought I should list this first as bloat (also called gastric dilation volvulus, or GDV) is a life-threatening emergency and you must be aware of it.

Bloat has become more common in deep-chested dogs like German Shepherds over the years.

Bloat is relatively harmless for humans, but for dogs, it can be deadly as they can become critically ill or die within hours if not treated. So what exactly is bloat?

“GDV is a condition where the stomach twists and then fills with gas. Or the other way around—no one is sure whether it bloats then twists, or twists then bloats.”

Dr. Anna Stobnicki, Pet MD

The causes are unknown but symptoms to look for are a swollen stomach, lots of drooling, panting, restlessness, and discomfort. Your German Shepherd may also repeatedly try to vomit but nothing will come up.

Good tips for reducing the risk are to feed 2 small meals rather than 1 large meal a day and to avoid feeding your dog before strenuous exercise, leaving at least an hour on either side of feeding. It’s also not advisable to use an elevated feeder. However, I recommend a slow-feeder bowl such as the Outward Hound Fun Feeder from Amazon, especially if your dog gulps his food.

Ensure your dog eats a nutritious and balanced diet. I feed my German Shepherd Cold-Pressed dog food as opposed to a regular dry kibble.

Traditional extruded kibble is known to swell and bloat which can cause discomfort, sickness, and gas whereas Cold-Pressed is easier to digest as it does not swell but breaks down slowly making it gentle on your dog’s tummy. See below for loads more info on this.

2. Canine Parvovirus

Canine parvovirus is a viral infection that can cause a sensitive stomach in German Shepherds. It most often affects puppies or unvaccinated adult dogs and can be potentially fatal.

German Shepherds have been described to be at increased risk of the disease, but any breed can be infected.

The virus is transmitted by direct contact with other infected dogs or poop. Signs to look out for include loss of appetite, fever, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and stomach pain.

There is a very high chance your dog will survive with appropriate treatment and most dogs recover within a few days.

Ensure your dog’s vaccinations are up to date to prevent this disease. Your vet will be able to advise you on the specific schedule depending on your German Shepherd’s age (puppy or adult dog).

3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease is a group of digestive system diseases that could be causing your GSD to have a sensitive stomach. There is usually some inflammation present however the exact cause is unknown.

Possible causes could be dietary, parasitic, bacterial overgrowth, or a reaction to a certain drug. Although food allergies are an unlikely cause in most cases, they may contribute to the development of the disease.

According to the MSD Veterinary Manual, inflammatory bowel disease can affect all ages and breeds of dogs however it has become more common in some breeds including the German Shepherd.

The disease is difficult to diagnose and the average age for the onset of inflammatory bowel disease is 6 years, but it may occur in dogs less than 2 years old. Signs are often present over a long period and may come and go.

Look out for vomiting, diarrhea, dark stools, stomach pain leading to changes in appetite, and weight loss due to your dog becoming unable to digest food properly.

Treatment may include anti-inflammatory medication and additional drugs to suppress the immune system. Other changes may be required to try and identify if a specific food is causing the problem and this is done by an elimination diet.

Vets may also recommend feeding your German Shepherd a hypoallergenic diet which either involves trying a new source of protein that they have never previously eaten, e.g duck, venison, or trying a hydrolyzed protein.

A hydrolyzed diet is one that contains a specially made protein that has been chemically split into such tiny pieces that the immune system does not mount an allergic reaction to it.

You will need your vet to authorize this special diet for your pet. There’s a good range to choose from on Amazon; however, some don’t get good reviews. You want to find one with top reviews such as the Blue Buffalo Natural Veterinary Diet Hydrolyzed, which, according to the comments, is well recommended by vets and seems to do the trick for dogs suffering from IBD.

4. Colitis

Colitis is an inflammation of the colon (large intestine). Inflammatory bowel disease (see 3. above) or infections (worms or other parasites) are the most common causes. Colitis could be causing a sensitive stomach in your German Shepherd.

Signs are chronic diarrhea that may also contain mucus and blood. Your dog may experience straining when pooping causing pain. Weight loss and vomiting can occur but are uncommon as these symptoms are seen more when the small intestine is involved.

Why Do German Shepherds Have Sensitive Stomachs? German Shepherd Dog Squatting to Poop
“Hey! Turn around!”

Most dogs are middle-aged that develop colitis and German Shepherds are one of the susceptible breeds.

They may also be more prone to a perianal fistula which is a painful wound in the skin around your dog’s rear end caused by the dog straining when trying to poop:

“There may be an association between colitis and perianal fistula, especially in German Shepherds.”

MSD Veterinary Manual

Treatment of colitis may include the following:

  • A bland diet
  • Deworming treatment
  • Anti-inflammatory medication
  • Probiotics

Colitis is usually a one-off occurrence and following treatment, most dogs will recover within a few days. However chronic colitis can take quite a few weeks to improve but can be very well managed with ongoing treatment. This may include feeding a special diet recommended by your vet.

5. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is the inability to produce sufficient pancreatic enzymes to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins and could be a cause of your German Shepherd’s sensitive stomach.

Because there is poor absorption of nutrients, weight loss commonly occurs despite a normal or increased appetite. Other signs are chronic diarrhea and occasional vomiting.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is most frequent in young adult German Shepherds and some other breeds.

The disease may be present from birth or acquired as the result of pancreatic infection or injury. The condition is easily diagnosed by a simple blood and stool tests. Most German Shepherds with EPI can be successfully treated with pancreatic enzyme replacement medication. A highly digestible, low-fat diet will also be required.

6. Cancers of the Digestive System

Cancer of the digestive system is rare in dogs, with stomach tumors representing less than 1% and intestinal tumors less than 10% of all cancers.

Having said that, bowel cancer is more prevalent in some breeds and that includes the German Shepherd. This could be the cause of your dog’s sensitive stomach.

The average age of dogs with cancer of the digestive system is 6–9 years old and the cause is unknown. So what exactly is cancer? Quite simply, cancer is the abnormal growth of cells that can invade or spread to other parts of the body.

Why Do German Shepherds Have Sensitive Stomachs? Sick German Shepherd with Cannula in Paw

Signs of a possible tumor depend on the location and extent to which cancer has developed. Vomiting and diarrhea (both sometimes with blood), lack of appetite, weight loss, and lethargy are the most common signs. Constipation and straining to poop are more likely with colon or rectal cancers. Dogs may also have signs of anemia, such as pale gums.

As with you and me, the prognosis depends on many variables such as possible surgical removal of the tumor, and/or chemotherapy treatment. The outlook can range from excellent to poor.

7. Gastrointestinal Ulcers

Accidental poisoning is one of the leading causes of gastrointestinal ulcers (e.g. mushrooms, pesticides, or chemical poisoning) which could be causing your GSDs sensitive stomach.

Gastrointestinal ulcers (stomach ulcers) can also be caused by certain drugs, for example, aspirin, ibuprofen, and corticosteroids.

It is also known that gastroduodenal ulcers are common in German Shepherds heavily medicated on ibuprofen. 

Other causes of stomach ulcers include cancer, infections, and diseases (e.g. kidney or liver disease and pancreatitis to name but a few). Some of the disorders already mentioned here including stomach obstruction, inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic stomach inflammation (gastritis) can also contribute.

Stress and extreme exercise may also be a factor. I found this interesting recent study from Frontiers in Veterinary Science evidencing that gastric ulcers and gastritis (see 10. below) can affect athletic dogs, for example, sled dogs.

The study states that other working dogs like retrievers are also at risk if they perform sufficiently strenuous exercise. Therefore, as some German Shepherds are working dogs, they may also be at an increased risk.

Courtesy of Pet MD, these are some of the many common symptoms of gastrointestinal ulcers :

  • Anemia
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vomiting (sometimes contains blood)
  • Black poop (due to blood)
  • Abdominal pain

However, some dogs may show no specific symptoms:

“Some symptoms may remain undetected until the dog’s condition becomes severe. For instance, dogs are less likely to show clinical evidence of gastrointestinal bleeding.”

Pet MD

The outlook for German Shepherds with gastrointestinal ulcers is good and medication can be prescribed for up to 8 weeks to heal the ulcers. A bland diet will be given (e.g. chicken and rice) and antibiotics may be required for some dogs. Unfortunately, the outlook is poor for those German Shepherds with ulcers associated with kidney or liver disease and some cancers.

8. Eosinophilic Gastroenteritis

Eosinophilic gastroenteritis is a form of IBD (see 3. above). It is an inflammation of your dog’s intestines and stomach and features a high number of eosinophils which is a type of white blood cell. This form of IBD could be the reason your German Shepherd’s stomach is sensitive.

German Shepherds are one of the breeds affected:

“Eosinophilic gastroenteritis is most commonly seen in dogs less than 5 years of age, though it can affect dogs of any age. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, soft-coated Wheaten Terriers, and Shar Peis may be predisposed.”

Pet MD

Symptoms are the usual nasties of vomiting and diarrhea. Lack of appetite, weight loss, and abdominal pain may also occur. Often the cause is unknown however these are believed to be some of them:

  • Parasites
  • Food allergies
  • Adverse reaction to drugs
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Eosinophilic leukemia

Treatment for this condition depends on the cause, for example, parasites, are treated by deworming, food allergies and hypersensitivities are controlled with an appropriate diet.

The gastroenteritis itself will heal with treatment including steroids to help reduce inflammation, pain medication, and acid blockers. Recovery generally occurs between 3-10 days of onset.

9. Gastrointestinal Obstruction

Gastrointestinal obstruction (also known as a bowel obstruction) is a complete or partial blockage that prevents solids or liquids from passing through the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract).

The blockage can also decrease blood flow to the bowels. You must treat this as an emergency as soon as you suspect your dog has eaten something that could cause a blockage.

Gastrointestinal obstruction can be a common problem in dogs due to their curious nature and willingness to eat or chew almost anything…especially puppies!

Why do German Shepherds have Sensitive Stomachs? Gastrointestinal Obstruction, German Shepherd puppy and a stethoscope in a veterinary clinic

Most dogs can suffer from this although young large breeds are more likely to have an obstruction caused by eating a foreign object, for example, rocks, twigs, bones, or toys.

Check out our article all about nuts to find out why I don’t recommend feeding them to your German Shepherd.

Other causes of a bowel blockage include tumors, polyps, ulcers, overgrowth of the stomach lining, bloat, “telescoping” of the intestine (where one segment of the intestine folds in on itself), hernia, and certain infections.

These are the symptoms to look out for:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Bloating
  • Fever
  • Shock

Your German Shepherd may be unable to stop vomiting, which can be life-threatening. The intestines first become bloated from built-up gas and this is followed by a loss of blood supply to the bowels. Without treatment, death due to shock caused by fluid loss may occur within a short time.

An endoscopy may be utilized by your veterinarian. This is where a tiny video camera attached to the end of a very narrow tube is inserted either into the stomach through the dog’s mouth or the colon via the rectum.

This allows a vet to view your German Shepherd’s GI tract, retrieve biopsies of tumors, and even retrieve foreign bodies that may be causing the obstruction.

However, if the object cannot be removed, surgery may be needed and this can be a worrying and expensive time. For these reasons make sure you have a good pet insurance plan in place.

10. Gastritis

Gastritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach and may be the cause of your GSDs sensitive stomach. The most common signs are sudden vomiting and decreased appetite. Other signs may include dehydration, lethargy, increased thirst, blood in the vomit or poop, and abdominal pain.

Causes of gastritis in German Shepherds may induce the following:

  • Eating inappropriate foods or objects
  • Adverse reaction to drugs or a toxic reaction
  • Metabolic/endocrine disease within the body
  • Infections (e.g. bacterial, viral or parasitic) 

Diagnosis of long-term gastritis involves bloodwork, a poop check, abdominal x-rays, ultrasound, and a possible biopsy of the stomach.

Acute (a short episode) gastritis may last less than 24 hours. Most German Shepherds will recover in 1-3 days with the proper treatment which may including a short period of fasting between 24-48 hours.

Chronic gastritis can last longer and may be associated with other more serious conditions so the prognosis depends on the underlying cause.

11. Malabsorption

Malabsorption may be causing your German Shepherd’s sensitive stomach. This is inflammation of the small intestine which impairs nutrient absorption and results in chronic diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Even though your German Shepherd may be eating well, they are not getting the vital nutrients needed from their food which leads to ill-health and other complications.

There can be a variety of symptoms but look out for your dog trying to eat poop, other non-food objects, or trying to get into the trash. Other signs are bloody, smelly, or oily poop, dehydration, a gurgling and rumbling stomach, lots of gas, lack of energy, vomiting, and a poor coat.

Treatment depends on the cause of malabsorption but a change of diet may be required, for example, changing to a gluten-free or a very high-quality food with a good protein source.

Adding live-cultured yogurt can also help and antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat bacterial overgrowth. The outlook is good for dogs diagnosed with this disorder.

12. Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas which may be the cause of your dog’s sensitivity. The pancreas is a vital organ that sits close to the stomach which helps with digestion and controls blood sugar.

Pancreatitis can be mild or severe and is often caused by your dog eating inappropriate food, for example, foods high in fat, or too many titbits or table-scraps. Other causes are obesity, recent surgery, some drugs, and toxins.

Loss of appetite, vomiting, weakness, stomach pain, dehydration, and diarrhea are some signs reported in German Shepherds with severe pancreatitis. In milder forms, symptoms may not be so obvious but will probably include diarrhea, lethargy, and lack of appetite.

Prognosis depends on how severe the disease is. Mild cases may just need a change of diet, for example, a low-fat, high-quality diet. Treatment for more severe cases may include anti-sickness and pain relief medications. Most dogs will make a full recovery with the correct treatment.

13. Food Allergy or Intolerance

All dogs can develop allergies, but some breeds are more prone to certain allergies than others and the German Shepherd falls into that category. They can be allergic to fleas, food, or chemicals.

Some other allergens are pollens, molds, house dust mites, or mildew. When your dog comes into contact with an allergen, a harmful reaction can irritate their skin.

Other symptoms are coughing, sneezing, wheezing, ear infections, or a runny discharge from the eyes or nose. Sometimes the digestive system is affected which causes a sensitive stomach and vomiting and diarrhea can occur.

So, what’s the difference between a food allergy and food intolerance, you might be wondering?

A food allergy involves the immune system and is usually triggered by an over-response to a protein whereas a food intolerance does not involve the immune system and is a reaction to an ingredient.

Don’t just think of meats being the only source of protein as there are also proteins in grains and vegetables. The most common food allergens in dogs are beef, wheat, and dairy.

An example of food intolerance is lactose intolerance where your German Shepherd is either missing or has low levels of the milk digesting enzyme lactase. The symptoms of both are very similar and an elimination diet is the only way to determine the food causing the problem.

As this is just a brief overview of food allergies in dogs, I wrote a more detailed article, German Shepherd Allergies which explains the causes and symptoms and includes various treatment options that you may find helpful.

What Can I Give My German Shepherd for an Upset Stomach?

If your German Shepherd has a sensitive stomach and is suffering from diarrhea, it’s best to feed small frequent meals of easily digestible, bland foods such as cooked white rice with some cooked skinless chicken.

Why Do German Shepherds Have Sensitive Stomachs? German Shepherd with a sensitive stomach sleeping on the couch
My German Shepherd “Willow” sleeping following a mild stomach upset

However, your vet may advise fasting your German Shepherd for the first 12-24 hours, especially if your dog already has any underlying medical conditions. It’s also important to consult your vet first if your German Shepherd is new to any type of food.

These are some other recommended bland foods, however, make sure they are cooked first where appropriate:

  • Potatoes (cooked)
  • Sweet potato
  • Pumpkin
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Banana
  • Low fat cottage cheese
  • Yogurt

How to Prevent Your German Shepherd Having an Upset Stomach

To help prevent your German Shepherd from developing any of the above nasty stomach or digestive conditions, make sure you feed a healthy nutritious diet containing the recommended mix of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

However, more important than this is the QUALITY of the ingredients used.

If you feed your German Shepherd high-quality dog food this tends to be much more digestible than the many lower quality products that you can find on the market. This will help prevent irritation to your dog’s sensitive stomach and intestines.

Look for a high-quality, protein-rich diet that includes essential vitamins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and fatty acids. The best diet for German Shepherds is a high-quality protein-rich diet consisting of between 18-22% protein as detailed in my outrageously long post which also includes everything your GSD can and can’t eat. 

The correct diet will prevent any stomach upset and will also ensure that your GSD properly metabolizes the vitamins and minerals in the food.

We have already learned that dogs find high quantities of fat more difficult to digest than carbohydrates and proteins, so a diet that also contains the correct ratio of fat is important to help prevent pancreatitis (see 12. above).

According to nutritional guidelines developed by the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials), the recommended daily fat content for growing puppies is 8% and 5% for an adult dog.

It’s so important to ensure your German Shepherd is getting a high-quality complete and balanced diet. If you like to feed your dog a home-produced diet I recommend consulting a pet nutritionist certified by the American College of Veterinary Nutrition.

These specialist vets have the expertise to customize the best diet for your dog and you can find their directory here.

If you suspect that your German Shepherd might have a sensitive stomach, the first thing to do is to simplify their diet.

Start by cutting out all the extra treats and titbits and monitor your dog closely to make sure they are not eating anything they shouldn’t, for example, anything toxic like grapes or chocolate that has been left lying around. Also, make sure they can’t get to any moldy food that they may try to steal from the garbage!

If you think that your dog’s current diet could be playing a role in his tummy troubles, try gradually switching to a different high-quality food that meets all the recommended nutritional guidelines for your dog’s current life stage. You might be quite surprised at the difference!

Here’s a list of other preventative options that owners of German Shepherds should consider to avert a sensitive stomach:

  • Don’t exercise your German Shepherd for at least an hour either side of a meal. It’s also better to feed 2 smaller meals a day for an adult dog rather than 1 huge meal. This is especially important for German Shepherds and large breeds to help prevent bloat.
  • Don’t use an elevated feeder as this is not recommended and may even contribute to bloat. Even though this is unproven, it is still not advised. I found this interesting article from Veterinary Evidence whereby the conclusion is – “the safest option is to advise that owners of ‘at risk’ dogs use a feeder on the floor.”
  • If your German Shepherd tends to gulp food, you can slow down their mealtimes by using a slow-feeder bowl or interactive feeder as eating too fast can bring on bloat. These are designed to force your dog to slow down their eating.
  • Make sure vaccinations and worming treatments are kept up to date. German Shepherd puppies should be wormed every two weeks until twelve weeks of age, then monthly until six months of age. After six months all dogs need to be wormed every three months.
  • Make sure your German Shepherd’s flea prevention treatment is also up to date. It’s best to follow your vet’s recommendations as they will be able to advise on the best flea products that work for your dog. My German Shepherd has her worming and flea treatment every three months.

Final Thoughts – The Importance of Nutrition

You now know of 13 possible causes of why your German Shepherd may have a sensitive stomach, and I’m sure you’ll agree, many of them are not so nice.

However, you can do things to help prevent your German Shepherd from having a sensitive stomach in the first place.

Sometimes we may joke at the phrase, “you are what you eat,” however, I believe this is quite true. It has one simple meaning – to be fit and healthy and live a long life, we all need to eat good food – and this includes our dogs!

On a final note, treatment for many of these disorders can become expensive, especially if it becomes a long-term problem. Consider insuring your dog with a good pet policy to safeguard from unexpected costs and ensure you have all the support you need to care for them.

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