Everything You Need to Know About Diarrhea in Dogs
Many pet lovers have experienced caring for a cat or dog with diarrhea. So don’t worry, you're not alone! Diarrhea is characterized by frequent passing of stools, often watery or containing mucus. Although unpleasant for all involved it’s often nothing serious. Schedule a visit to see your vet, and keep reading to learn what you can do at home until your dog’s appointment.
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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Just like people, most instances of mild diarrhea resolve if given a little time. If your dog has frequent, profuse, or bloody diarrhea, or other symptoms such as vomiting, painful belly, and/or abnormal behavior, it’s time to call a vet. Your vet will perform tests to help determine the cause of the diarrhea and recommend appropriate treatment.
7 Common Causes Diarrhea in Dogs
1. Dietary Indiscretion
Garbage Guts! Dietary indiscretion refers to your dog eating things he shouldn’t. Some dogs will go through the trash, others find something rotting and tasty when out walking, skillfully sweeping it into their mouths while you, on the end of the leash, are unaware! The ingested waste can cause diarrhea in a variety of ways:
- Toxins - These range from mild to serious toxins and therefore cause a range of different symptoms, but diarrhea is most common.
- Mechanical effect of indigestible food - Indigestible food, (like leaves, acorns, fruit pits, or other foreign material) can act like sandpaper on the lining of the bowels, causing irritation. In some cases, this can cause blood in the stool (See our article on bloody diarrhea). Importantly but less commonly, indigestible material can become lodged, obstructing the intestines. A partial obstruction can cause diarrhea but is a very serious condition that may need to be treated surgically.
- Ingestion of harmful bacteria (E.coli, Salmonella, etc.) - These are true cases of “food poisoning” and could be transmitted to humans. It should be noted that it’s preferable to wear your own PPE if you need to clean up your pet’s diarrhea.
2. Dietary Intolerance/Food Allergy
True food allergies are uncommon. Most are intolerances that can be caused by any part of the diet. Some pet foods are rich in additives, flavorings, and preservatives and some foods can have inconsistent manufacturing processes. These make certain foods more likely to cause a reaction.
3. Sudden Change of Diet
A new diet should be introduced gradually. A sudden switch can cause diarrhea by upsetting the gut microbiome.
Many parasites can cause diarrhea. Examples include giardia, coccidia, and whipworms. Most vets recommend regular deworming and a yearly fecal exam as part of an annual checkup. These intestinal parasites are usually passed from dog-to-dog and some pets can reinfect themselves even after treatment.
5. Viral Infections
Usually passed from dog-to-dog, these include serious infections such as Parvovirus and Distemper virus that can occur in unvaccinated puppies. More endemic and less serious viruses such as canine coronavirus (not COVID) and rotavirus also cause milder versions of diarrhea in dogs.
6. Prescribed Medications
Prescription drugs such as anti-inflammatories or antibiotics can cause diarrhea. A vet must be consulted before deciding to continue or discard the medication.
7. Other Causes of Diarrhea in Dogs
Less commonly, diarrhea may be caused by certain types of endocrine disease, liver disease, and certain types of intestinal tumors. These are likely to produce ongoing signs, so diarrhea that doesn’t resolve should be investigated further by your vet.
Why is it important to treat my dog for diarrhea?
Diarrhea can lead to dehydration so it’s important that your dog continues to drink plenty of water. Offer a bland diet that is easily absorbed and digested in the intestinal tract. If your dog has diarrhea for several days without improvement or has an underlying disease, their health may continue to decline unless appropriate treatment is performed.
For everyone involved, a swift recovery from diarrhea is preferred! Consulting a vet ensures the most effective treatment plan is made for your dog.
What about giving my dog over-the-counter medication for diarrhea?
Do not give any over-the-counter (OTC) medications to your dog without talking to your vet first. Not only can OTC medications be dangerous for pets, but they can also hide an underlying problem.
Home Remedies for Doggy Diarrhea
If your vet suspects that your dog’s diarrhea isn’t any more serious than a case of dietary indiscretion or isolated food intolerance then they may suggest remedies available at home, particularly if you’re unable to attend an appointment or visit the clinic that day.
1. Withhold Food for 24 Hours
Home remedies for diarrhea often start with a food fast - skipping one meal is recommended, with a maximum of 24 hours between meals. This gives the digestive system a break and time to heal. But you should always provide easy access to fresh water. Your pet will likely need to drink more than usual.
2. Offer Bland Food
After the fast, reintroduce bland food in small quantities. Homemade examples of bland food are boiled white rice mixed with equal amounts of white meat such as chicken or fish. The meat should be baked, steamed, or microwaved, with no added fat. Offer each meal in small quantities - think 1 tablespoon for small dogs/cats and 2 tablespoons for larger dogs. This can be offered every 3-4 hours.
Proprietary brands of hypoallergenic food for digestive upsets exist for this purpose and are superior to homemade food due to a precise and tailored mix of nutrients. Some of these foods also include a pre/probiotic. The author always keeps a few cans of this in the pantry in case diarrhea strikes!
Feed the bland diet for at least 48 hours after a normal stool has formed. This may take several days so it’s ideal to purchase one of these formulated diets to ensure that your dog receives appropriate vitamins and minerals. Properly formulated diets become very important if your dog has diarrhea for a longer period of time.
For more feeding instructions and recipes, follow this link!
Probiotics have been proven to speed diarrhea recovery times. The studies looking at this used a proprietary blend of probiotics for dogs or cats. However, if you can’t get your hands on that right away you can try some natural yogurt. A teaspoon is plenty for cats and small dogs, a dessert spoon for larger dogs.
4. Electrolyte Solutions
Electrolyte solutions are not essential for mild bouts of diarrhea and they aren’t easy to make at home. Generally, if the diarrhea is severe enough to cause electrolyte imbalances then it’s time to see the vet. However, adding a very small amount of salt-free meat broth to your dog’s water may encourage him to drink.
If the diarrhea persists for more than 24 hours, or more serious signs develop at any stage (such as vomiting, lethargy, or weakness) then veterinary care should be sought immediately.
What to Do if Your Puppy Has Diarrhea:
It’s important to speak to a vet as soon as possible if your puppy has diarrhea. Your vet will likely run a test on a fresh stool sample to screen for parasites. Worms such as Roundworm and Whipworm, or Protozoa such as Giardia and Coccidia are very common causes of diarrhea in puppies.
Your vet will request further information about the health of your puppy, specifically whether she is vaccinated for diseases such as Distemper and Parvovirus. Though these are less common, both cause diarrhea and have a high mortality rate. The diarrhea is usually profuse and the puppy will appear very unwell.
Other things to consider include a recent change in diet, environment, or addition of training treats. These are much more common causes of diarrhea in dogs. The symptoms are mild and usually your pup will appear well and happy if these are the cause.
Your vet will be able to determine whether your pup needs further diagnostics or if some simple remedies can be tried at home.
Home Remedies for Puppy Diarrhea
Home remedy options need to be modified for puppies. Generally, young puppies are fed 3-4 times per day and can skip one meal in an effort to rest the digestive system. A 24-hour fast is too long for a puppy and should never be attempted. Reintroducing bland food is a good idea: 1 tablespoon of chicken/rice mixture can be offered approximately every 2-3 hours.
Puppies recover quickly but can also deteriorate quickly. Keep a close eye on their energy levels and appetite. Never hesitate to contact your vet again if you have concerns about your pup’s recovery.
Tips for Cleaning Up When Your Dog Has Diarrhea:
- Wear gloves and use a good disinfectant to clean the area.
- Try to wash your puppy’s bottom if it has become soiled. Using an antibacterial soap such as Dial is okay if you don’t have an antibacterial dog shampoo.
- If you can, collect a sample of stool. It’s likely your vet will want to test it for common parasites.
- Keep your puppy in a confined, easy-to-clean area in case diarrhea strikes again, but ensure you let them outside regularly.
- Be cautious if you have other dogs or children. Occasionally diarrhea will be caused by an infection that can be passed on to others. Practice strict hygiene and keep them separated if possible.
My dog’s diarrhea isn’t getting better. When should I take him to the vet?
If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms, it's time to schedule a vet appointment:
- The diarrhea is bloody or very dark/black
- Your dog is becoming lethargic or weak
- Your dog won’t eat food for more than 24-48 hours or doesn’t want to drink water
- Your dog is dehydrated (check for dry sticky gums)
- An object may have been swallowed that could block the stomach or intestines
- Your pup has stomach pain or a swollen abdomen
- There has been no response to home care for 3-4 days (for young puppies and older dogs you should seek help earlier)
- Your dog has multiple episodes of vomiting and/or diarrhea
How will the vet treat my dog’s diarrhea?
If your dog is very sick or dehydrated, he may need to stay in the hospital.
- Your dog may be given IV fluids to correct dehydration and replace lost electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride).
- Blood work may be done to check red and white blood cell counts, as well as evaluate internal organ function (liver, kidneys, pancreas).
- Other diagnostics might be recommended to determine the cause of your dog’s diarrhea. These include x-rays or ultrasound of the abdomen, fecal exam, and tests for diseases like pancreatitis or parvovirus.
Treatments for the diarrhea and any underlying issues will likely continue once your dog is discharged to go home:
- A bland diet that requires minimal digestion will likely be prescribed.
- Your dog may go home with prescriptions for anti-nausea medication, antacids, pain relief, and probiotics to replace normal gut bacteria.
Have more questions about your dog’s diarrhea?
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