Diagnostic approach to chronic vomiting in dogs and cats (Proceedings)


Diagnostic approach to chronic vomiting in dogs and cats (Proceedings)

Aug 01, 2010

Chronic vomiting (intermittently or continuously for at least 7 days) in dogs and cats is a common and frustrating problem for clients and veterinarians. Because many diseases cause chronic vomiting, a thorough evaluation must be performed to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Definitive diagnosis of many diseases requires mucosal biopsy. In the past, exploratory laparotomy was necessary to obtain biopsy specimens. However, the increased availability of flexible fiberoptic endoscopy in veterinary medicine has allowed less invasive tissue biopsy.

The first step in the approach to the chronically vomiting patient is to determine that vomiting and not regurgitation is present. Vomiting is associated with signs of nausea (depression, salivation, frequent swallowing, and vocalization in some cats) that is followed by abdominal contractions prior to the expulsion of material. Regurgitation is associated with esophageal disorders and occurs passively, usually associated with increased intrathoracic pressure that may be caused by excitement, activity, or changes in body position.

Once you have determined vomiting is present the history and physical examination can contain many clues to the etiology. A thorough dietary history should be obtained. In some cases, correcting dietary indiscretion or instituting a highly digestible diet for 3-4 weeks will resolve the vomiting. Dietary indiscretion can be due to a recent diet change, feeding of table scraps, free-roaming behavior allowing ingestion of garbage, ingestion of foreign objects, exposure to toxins (including house plants), excessive ingestion of hair, or feeding a low quality poorly digestible diet. The history may identify the use of drugs, such as NSAIDs, that can cause vomiting due to gastritis or ulceration. The presence of diarrhea or signs of systemic disease may help to rank the rule-out list.

Physical examination may be normal or only demonstrate signs of weight loss. An abdominal mass or dilated loop of small bowel may be identified as a cause of high partial small bowel obstruction. If vomiting has recently become more frequent, signs of dehydration may be present (delayed capillary refill time, enophthalmos, decreased skin turgor, tachycardia, pale mucous membranes, and cold extremities). Signs suggesting systemic disease include: polyuria / polydipsia, polyphagia, hepatomegaly, cataract formation, icterus, encephalopathy, ascites, pyrexia, bradycardia, tachycardia, small irregular kidneys, oral ulceration, pale mucous membranes, splenomegaly, or an abdominal mass.

Table 1 - Some Causes of Chronic Vomiting
Table 1 lists some causes of chronic vomiting in dogs and cats. Systemic diseases can usually be ruled out by a thorough history, careful physical examination and routine laboratory tests (complete blood count, biochemical profile, urinalysis, amylase and lipase, heartworm antibody test, and T4). Correction of dietary indiscretion or a 3-4 week trial with a highly digestible diet should be performed before more invasive testing. Gastrointestinal causes of chronic vomiting may involve either the stomach or orad small intestine. An efficient plan to evaluate gastrointestinal causes includes fecal examination for parasites, survey abdominal radiography, and endoscopic examination with mucosal biopsy. If endoscopy is not available, a barium contrast upper GI series and exploratory laparotomy can be used (Table 2). Although helpful in some cases, the diagnostic utility of abdominal ultrasound has not yet been fully determined. Abnormalities that can be detected include thickened stomach or small bowel, gastric, small bowel or pancreatic mass, enlarged regional lymph nodes, enlarged hypoechoic pancreas, dilated small bowel, abnormal gastric or small bowel motility, or evidence of an intraluminal foreign body.

Table 2: Comparison of Diagnostic Modalities
Survey abdominal radiographs rarely establish a cause for chronic vomiting (unless a radiodense foreign body is seen) and a barium upper GI series is usually indicated. Advantages of contrast radiography versus endoscopy and laparotomy include the following: 1) available in all practices, 2) noninvasive, 3) does not require general anesthesia, 4) always visualizes the duodenum, 5) evaluates gastric size and position, 6) provides a qualitative description of gastric motility and emptying of liquids, and 7) detects extraluminal and submucosal / muscular masses. A barium series is time consuming to perform, costly to the client, and is a source of radiation exposure to the hospital staff. If lesions are identified, tissue biopsy is needed to confirm a diagnosis. If a foreign body is detected, it must be removed via endoscopy or exploratory laparotomy. The upper GI series is insensitive for mucosal lesions. Abdominal ultrasonography has recently been added to the diagnostic plan for many dogs and cats with chronic vomiting. It has been shown to be very helpful in animals with a mass lesion. An ultrasound guided fine needle aspirate or trucut biopsy can be performed. Ultrasound has also been shown to helpful in cases with chronic pancreatitis. Other advantages of ultrasound include: being noninvasive, imaging of the liver and biliary system, imaging of the small and large bowel and mesenteric lymph nodes, and assessment of the layers of the GI tract and its motility. Disadvantages include the need for expensive equipment and specialized training, interference by gas within the GI tract, difficulty in imaging the pancreas, and the overall diagnostic utility has not been establishedIn a group of dogs with chronic vomiting, the following factors were associated with a high diagnostic utility of abdominal ultrasound: presence of weight loss, higher percentage of body weight lost, increasing age, increasing duration of vomiting, and an increased frequency of vomiting/week.

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