Updated - Oct 15th, 2022
Calling all embarrassed dog parents! If you just tried to scoop up poop with a poop bag and couldn’t without ripping out all the surrounding grass, this article is for you…
What to do if your dog has diarrhea?
As an emergency critical care veterinary specialist, I see a lot of dogs coming into the ER for diarrhea. And most of the time, diarrhea can be managed easily – sometimes even at home – however, sometimes diarrhea can be severe enough to require a thorough medical work up or even hospitalization by your veterinarian or ER veterinarian! So, how do you tell if your dog’s diarrhea is serious or not?
What are signs of diarrhea in dogs?
It seems obvious – but diarrhea is more than just loose or watery dog poop. There are two main types of “categories” of diarrhea: small bowel (e.g., small intestine) and large bowel (e.g., colon). Depending on where the diarrhea is coming from anatomically, clinical signs can vary. That said, the treatment is usually pretty similar. Common symptoms seen along with diarrhea include:
- Inappetance to complete loss of appetite
- Drooling secondary to nausea
- Dry heaving or retching
- Acute diarrhea, ranging from pipe stream watery to pudding, soft stool consistency
- Voluminous amounts of stool (small bowel) versus small, mucous-y, bloody spotting (large bowel)
- Increased urgency to go outside or increase in frequency of bowel movements (large bowel)
- Painful abdomen
- Weight loss (with chronic diarrhea)
- Fever or hypothermia
What causes diarrhea in dogs?
Diarrhea can be caused by a lot of medical reasons. If your dog has diarrhea, it’s typically due to an acute inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract (called “gastroenteritis”). However, there are a lot of other causes of diarrhea in dogs, including common reasons that may land you a visit in the veterinary ER:
- Inappropriate or sudden changes in your dog’s diet (e.g., getting into “people” food, an acute change in brand or type of dog food, etc.)
- Intestinal parasites (e.g., hookworms, whipworms, roundworms, coccidia, giardia, etc.)
- Bacterial infections (e.g., Clostridium overgrowth)
- Virus infections (e.g., parvovirus, coronavirus, distemper, etc.)
That said, diarrhea can often be the first “sign” of more serious health problems! That’s why numerous other problems need to be ruled out, as treatment may vary significantly. These include:
- Metabolic problems (e.g., liver disease, kidney problems, hypoadrenocorticism, etc.)
- Gastrointestinal tract disease [e.g., inflammatory bowel disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), pancreatitis, protein-losing enteropathy (PLE), etc.]
- Foreign objects stuck in the stomach or intestines (e.g., called foreign body obstruction)
- Gastrointestinal obstructions (e.g., intussusception, mesenteric torsion, gastric dilatation volvulus, etc.)
- Colitis (e.g., inflammation of the colon)
Less common causes for diarrhea in dogs include:
- Hemorrhagic diarrhea (HGE) (e.g., bloody poop)
- Boxer colitis (often called histiocytic ulcerative colitis or granulomatous colitis)
- Medication-related (e.g., antibiotics, etc.)
- Fungal infections within the digestive tract (more common in certain regions of the U.S. than others)
*Note, this list is not all-inclusive.
As you can see, there are a lot of possible causes for diarrhea, and your veterinarian will need to figure out how serious or not it is based on multiple factors, such as your dog’s age, breed, clinical signs, physical examination findings, duration of diarrhea/illness, and a thorough patient history.
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Are certain ages of dogs or breeds predisposed towards diarrhea?
Younger dogs (e.g., puppies) may be more predisposed to diarrhea due to the presence of parasites, stress-related changes, or even due to changes in diet during weaning. Older dogs may be more predisposed to cancer in their intestines causing chronic diarrhea.
As for breeds, if you own a Greyhound, you’re probably already well aware of their loose stools – that’s because Greyhounds get diarrhea if you look at them cross-eyed, and are very sensitive to diet change and stress colitis! Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers? They’re the top dogs I see coming in to the ER vet for “dietary indiscretion” resulting in some mild stomach upset and diarrhea. That said, they also love to chew and may have a foreign body stuck in their gastrointestinal tract. Young Boxers can develop histiocytic ulcerative colitis (also called granulomatous colitis or “Boxer colitis”) which results in severe chronic loose stools. Other breeds are predisposed to medical problems that cause diarrhea. For example, Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, and Shetland Sheepdogs are more predisposed to pancreatitis. German Shepherds are more likely to develop EPI, while Yorkshire Terriers are more predisposed to PLE.
What will my veterinarian do for my dog’s diarrhea?
If your dog has a mild case of diarrhea, most of the time, they may just send you home with a change in diet and anti-vomiting medication. But again, cases of diarrhea may be more severe or chronic and warrant more of a medical workup to rule out the other medical causes listed above. If the diarrhea is acute, and goes away with a temporary prescription high-fiber diet, then voila, you may be all set! But if it re-develops, or if your dog gets sicker, then a more thorough work up will need to be done to rule out medical problems. This typically includes:
- A complete blood count (CBC) to evaluate the red and white blood cell count, along with the platelet count
- A biochemistry panel to evaluate the protein, electrolytes, kidney function and liver enzymes
- Your dog’s stool sample to rule out parasitic infections or abnormal bacterial overgrowth
- A urinalysis to evaluate kidney function
- Abdominal x-rays to rule out a foreign body, obstruction, or abnormal fluid in the intestines or abdomen
Depending on the results of the initial tests, more advanced diagnostics may be necessary to rule out other underlying problems. These tests may include:
- Abdominal ultrasound to look at the appearance of the stomach and pylorus, intestines, pancreas, and other key organs
- A cPL (canine pancreas-specific lipase) test to rule out pancreatitis (note: this test is not 100% accurate, and must be interpreted appropriately by your veterinarian)
- Specific testing for viruses (e.g., parvovirus fecal tests, etc.)
- Endoscopy where a camera and biopsy tool is placed into the mouth, stomach and intestines to help rule out inflammatory bowel disease/food allergies
- Potential surgery if a foreign object or intestinal obstruction is noted
As diarrhea can cause dehydration, treatment focuses primarily on hydration of the patient. The more watery or loose the diarrhea, and the more bloody it is, the more the risk for dehydration! Add on a few episodes of vomiting and rapid dehydration can occur. So, treatment will depend on how severe the clinical signs are, or how sick your dog may be. Thankfully, most types of diarrhea are self-limiting. Treatment for diarrhea generally includes:
- Fluids under the skin to help hydrate (called subcutaneous or “SQ” fluids); if more severe signs are seen, intravenous (IV) fluids are recommended to better hydrate more effectively
- Anti-vomiting medication (e.g., maropitant, ondansestron, etc.)
- Antacids to coat the stomach
- Drugs to stimulate movement of the intestines (e.g., prokinetic drugs like metoclopramide)
- Dewormers (e.g., just in case parasites are present)
- A low-fat, high-fiber bland diet such as home-cooked boiled chicken with white rice (My favorite food for diarrhea since I don’t cook? Hill’s prescription canned food called W/D for “weight diet” to help fix the problem fast!)
- Pain medication (if abdominal pain is present)
- An antibiotic (e.g., metronidazole) to help normalize the bacteria within the gastrointestinal tract (I typically only reserve this for severe bloody diarrhea in sick dogs)
- A veterinary-recommended probiotic
- Home remedies for increasing fiber (e.g., adding more pumpkin or Metamucil into the food)
- Home remedies to coat the stomach (e.g., Pepto bismol, Pepcid AC)
The easiest way to prevent a visit to the veterinarian for treatment for diarrhea is preventative care. Make sure to keep your dog or cat on monthly heartworm and flea and tick preventatives to prevent parasites, and make sure your pet is vaccinated (which protects against diseases, such as parvovirus, panleukopenia, etc.). If you have a younger puppy or kitten, make sure to keep your pet isolated from public places like dog parks until they have undergone a whole vaccine series. Also, make sure to keep your pet away from table scraps (e.g., bones, corn-on-the-cob), socks, underwear, plastic toys, pacifiers, garbage, or anything that may pose a poisoning or foreign body ingestion risk to your dog. When changing diets, make sure to do so slowly over several days to weeks to allow the gastrointestinal tract time to adjust to the new diet. When in doubt, check with your veterinarian for more tips on how to keep your pet safe.
Thankfully, the prognosis for diarrhea in dogs is generally excellent! That said, don’t wait until your dog is very dehydrated from profuse vomiting before seeking assistance. The sooner you seek veterinary attention and treat your dog’s diarrhea, the less costly it may be.