Dogs have a lot of strange habits that puzzle and sometimes disgust us. I think that you’ll agree that throwing up and then eating their own vomit is one of the least appealing things that dogs do. However, it’s actually pretty common.
The answer to the question, “Why do dogs eat their own vomit?” is simple enough. Eating regurgitated food is a behavior that some dogs learn during weaning and due to dogs’ amazing sense of smell they sometimes mistake vomit for food.
It’s normal if your dog only vomits once in a while and eats it before you can stop them. There are some simple steps you can take to prevent your dog from eating their vomit because it IS gross, but you only really need to worry if your dog is vomiting frequently or it is accompanied by other symptoms.
2 Reasons Why Dogs Eat Their Own Vomit
1. Puppies Eat Regurgitated Food From Their Mothers
As we mentioned briefly before, eating vomit can actually be interpreted as an evolutionary behavior inherited from dogs’ wolf ancestors. Instead of going from their mother’s milk straight to solid food, wolf pups eat regurgitated food that was already partially broken down by being chewed and swallowed.
According to Tracy Hotchner’s The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know:
“Wolf pups beg food from their mother by pawing and biting at her lips when she returns to the den, trying to get her to [regurgitate]. This ancestral wolf habit has been bred out of domestic dogs … but it explains why dogs will instinctively re-eat their [regurgitated] food. This is also the instinctive reason that dogs lick your mouth and face: to stimulate you to regurgitate for them. Nice, eh?”
This practice is still seen in some domesticated dogs today, although not all mothers feed their puppies this way. So, your dog already may be familiar with eating food that has been pre-digested or have an evolutionary predisposition towards seeing vomit as a source of food. Either way, to them it isn’t strange or gross like we think it is.
The difference between regurgitation and vomiting…
This is where it’s important to distinguish vomiting from regurgitation.
Vomiting is the involuntary coming up of food from the stomach and upper intestines. Some dogs may vomit for no reason or due to indigestion and then continue on with their day as if nothing happened. Before your dog vomits you may notice them heaving, drooling excessively, or see their abdominal muscles contracting. The vomit may include a mixture of digested food and fluids.
Regurgitation is the bringing up of undigested food from the esophagus.
Regurgitation happens in the example of mothers regurgitating food for their pups, but also occurs when dogs eat too fast and bring their meal back up. Signs of regurgitation differ from vomiting. When your dog is regurgitating you’ll notice coughing or difficulty breathing. Regurgitated food retains the cylindrical shape of the esophagus.
2. To Dogs, Vomit Can Actually Be Appealing
Another reason why dogs are so quick to eat their own vomit is because to them, it’s much more than just disgusting stomach contents: its food!
Dogs’ sense of smell is amazing. In an article for pbs.org titled Dogs’ Dazzling Sense of Smell, Peter Tyson explains why. Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors, whereas humans only have 6 million. The area of your dog’s brain that processes smell is 40 times larger than that of a human, and they even have a whole part of their nose dedicated to identifying different smells!
For humans, smelling and breathing are part of the same function. Our sense of smell is controlled in a small area of our upper nasal cavity. Dogs have two different nose regions: olfactory and respiratory. Approximately 12% of the air our dogs’ breath goes to the olfactory region which processes scent information, while the other 88% of the air our dogs breathe enters the pharynx and then the lungs.
Since your dog’s vomit contains their stomach contents and dogs often vomit soon after eating, your dog smells its vomit and thinks they’re in for a yummy meal. Sometimes dogs even bring up whole kibble that looks like their food, just softer, especially if they’re just regurgitating and not vomiting.
If you live in a multi-dog or multi-animal household, you’re probably aware that your dog may even eat other pets’ vomit when given the opportunity. As gross as it is to us, they can recognize the smell of food from a mile away!
You may notice that if your dog throws up food that is more digested and broken down, they will be less likely to eat it. Your dog also won’t eat their own vomit if they’re feeling sick and lack an appetite.
When Should You Worry About Your Dog Eating Vomit?
We’ve established that your dog eating its own vomit is a normal, explainable behavior, but is it okay? The short answer is yes. Your dog eating vomit isn’t going to do much harm, especially if it’s their own and you know they haven’t gotten into anything toxic.
Of course, it is gross and not something you want to encourage your dog to do (more tips on how to deal with this later!).
You only need to start worrying about your dog’s safety if their vomiting becomes frequent or they are throwing up large amounts. It’s important to see a vet as soon as possible if your dog’s vomiting is accompanied by other symptoms, like:
A dog throwing up can be because of something minor like eating food that didn’t agree with them or eating too fast. It could also signal something more serious, like an undiagnozed medical condition, allergies, or that they ingested something toxic/poisonous.
The American Kennel Club lists various reasons for acute vomiting in dogs, including ingesting irritants like chocolate or garbage, heat stroke, bloat, a change in diet, kidney failure, and more. Acute vomiting is sudden and/or severe. If this happens you should call your vet and do your best to fill them in on pre-existing conditions or any recent changes that might have triggered the vomiting so it can be treated.
How to Stop Your Dog from Eating Its Own Vomit
If your dog vomits a lot getting to the root of the problem and treating it can really help. If it only happens from time to time but you can’t stand finding your dog scarfing up its own puke, here’s what you can do about it:
Move your dog out of the way!
Your first instinct might be to run for cleaner and paper towels, but really you should take a second to remove your dog from the area first.
If left alone even for a moment they’re likely to take a sniff and be tempted to eat their vomit, so removing the temptation is essential to stopping this behavior.
Since dogs often throw up more than once at a time, putting your dog outside in a fenced in yard or on a long leash is a good idea, since it can make cleanup of any additional vomit easier. Give your dog water to help rehydrate and then head back in to deal with the mess in peace.
Teach your dog to “leave it”
Every dog owner should teach their dog to “leave it” and practice this skill often. It can be the difference between life and death if it means stopping your dog from ingesting something toxic, chasing something onto a busy street, or going after an aggressive dog.
In this scenario, teaching your dog to leave it means you will be able to get your dog’s attention and reward them for not eating their own vomit. If done right, this should make it easier to stop your dog from eating their vomit in the future. Sherry Woodard, animal behavior consultant for Bestfriends.org, outlines these simple steps for teaching your dog to “leave it”:
To start, make sure you have two different types of treats. One should be regular, and maybe a little boring (like kibble). The other should be something that your dog finds irresistible. These could be one of your dog’s regular treats broken up into small treats or special training treats.
A couple of training treats highly recommended by owners and trainers are the low calorie, bacon flavored Pet Botanics Training Reward treats and Wellness Soft Puppy Bites for younger dogs. You can also use small pieces of meat, fruit, or vegetables if these are appealing to your dog and something you like to include in their diet.
Place one treat in each hand behind your back, then offer your dog the lower value treat in your closed fist. If they sniff your hand tell them to “leave it”. When they stop sniffing use your clicker in the other hand or say “ok” and give them the high value treat.
Repeat this step until your dog stops sniffing your hand as soon as you tell them to “leave it”.
For the next step, put your dog on their leash and throw a lower value treat out of their reach. When they react, tell them to “leave it”. Wait until your dog stops sniffing and pulling, then click or say “ok” and give them the high value treat.
Keep practicing this step. As your dog gets better you can start to be creative with the things you throw or reward your dog with. For example, you may toss a treat and tell your dog to leave it, but instead of giving your dog a better treat you two may play with their favorite toy.
The key is to keep training fun and treat it like a game! Your dog will learn an important skill and get physical/mental stimulation at the same time. Eventually, you can move your training sessions outdoors and use different distractions to test your dog’s focus.
As human beings we generally find vomit pretty repulsive, which is why we question our dogs’ sanity when we find them eating their own vomit. Luckily, there are some pretty straightforward explanations for this odd behavior and most of the time it isn’t dangerous for your dog, it’s just gross.
One reason for this behavior is that wolves and some dogs learn to eat regurgitated food from their mothers as part of the weaning process. Another reason dogs eat their own vomit it because their sense of smell is much stronger than ours. They can actually smell their food in the vomit and still find it appealing enough to eat.
There are some things you can do to stop your dog from eating their own vomit, like putting them outside or in a different room before you start to clean up. You can also train your dog to respond to the command “leave it” and reward them for listening to you.
If your dog is vomiting a lot or just isn’t acting like themselves, it’s important to visit a vet to rule out any possible medical causes.
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