Nothing gets a pet owner moving faster than the preemptive sounds of their pet preparing to vomit or have diarrhea. If you own a pet, you will likely have to deal with diarrhea at one time or another. And in some unfortunate cases, it may be a regular situation.
What is Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is the term used when your dog passes non-formed loose or watery stool more often and in larger amounts than they would normally defecate. It is a common condition that is a sign or symptom of other diseases or issues rather than a disease itself.
It can be the result of a minor condition, such as a dietary indiscretion, that only requires simple treatment for its resolution, or it can be the result of a serious illness, such as cancer, that requires more involved treatments.
Diarrhea is one of the most common problems that bring dogs into the vet. Even a mild case can become serious if not treated early enough.
Dogs can become dehydrated and develop electrolyte imbalances. Therefore knowing why your dog may have diarrhea and the possible cause helps you know when it is critical to seek medical care versus treating your dog at home.
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When diarrhea is an emergency
How to Know When You Can Treat Diarrhea at Home
- Your dog is acting normally
- normal energy
- normal appetite
- No vomiting
- Your dog is up–to–date on their vaccines (such as vaccines for parvovirus or distemper virus)
- Your dog is a young adult (not very young or old)
- There are no pre-existing health issues such as Addison’s disease, kidney failure, cancer, etc.
How to Know When Diarrhea is a Medical Emergency
- You suspect your dog has ingested a toxin or poison
- You suspect your dog has ingested a foreign body, such as a toy or clothes
- Your dog is low energy and may seem weak
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting (typically more than once or any time water and/or food is consumed). Always contact a veterinarian if any blood is noted, even if they vomit only once.
- Frequent bouts of diarrhea repeated over a couple-hour window of time
- The diarrhea has lasted more than 24 to 36 hours despite home remedies
- There is a lot of blood (red) in the poop – small spots of blood are not necessarily an emergency
- The stool is black and /or tarry
- Your dog is continually straining to poop and not much is coming out
- Your dog’s gums are pale, bluish, whitish, or gray in color
- Your dog’s stomach is painful (rapid panting, groaning, or avoids being touched) and bloated
- Your dog is passing worms in their stool or you see worms in their vomit
When in doubt, call your vet or an emergency hospital for advice.
How to Treat Your Dog's Diarrhea at Home
There are times when your dog may be off, and you can manage their diarrhea without a trip to the veterinarian.
If you have determined that it will likely be ok to try and “ride out” your dog’s diarrhea for 24 to 36 hours, then here are some options to help.
Just like with us, rest is important. Give your dog a quiet and comfortable place for them to recover. It is likely best to be a place close to a door to go outside and that has an easy-to-clean floor for those unfortunate poop accidents.
Ideally, fast your dog for 12 hours to allow their gastrointestinal tract to rest and recover. This means NO treats, regular meals, snacks – food of any kind.
It is critical that you maintain your dog’s hydration. During this period of time, you can give your dog rice water. The benefit of rice water over plain water is that it may help improve digestion, help alleviate gas and bloating, provides some beneficial minerals and the carbohydrates provide some energy.
You want to use good quality white rice (not minute rice). Brown rice is not recommended since it has too much fiber.
How to make rice water
- 1 cup of White Rice
- 4 Cups of Water
Boil 1 cup of white rice in 4 cups of water for 10 to 30 minutes (maybe longer) until the water turns a creamy white color. Remove the liquid and allow it to cool. Save the cooked rice for later use. Once cooled, give it to your dog as often as they will consume it. Discontinue if your dog starts vomiting and contact your veterinarian. For those dogs not interested, you can add a couple of teaspoons of low sodium chicken broth powder or pet-safe bone broth (be sure it does not contain any onions or garlic).
Alternatives to rice water
If you find that rice water isn’t your dog’s thing, you can try clear, unflavored Pedialyte. Personally, I think the stuff tastes terrible and would prefer the rice water! I do not recommend Gatorade because it is high in sugar, and that can cause further intestinal inflammation. There are electrolyte solutions made specifically for pets, as well.
Once you are past the first 12 hours of fasting, you can begin offering your dog small amounts of a bland, low-fat, and easily digestible diet.
Bland Diet Options
1. Plain, boiled, boneless, skinless chicken and rice (the leftover from the rice water).
2. Chicken or turkey baby food (be sure it does not contain onions or garlic – the links we provided are pet safe baby food choices)
Serving Size Example:
A small breed dog can be offered a tablespoon or two every hour for a couple of hours. Then allow them to rest for a couple of hours. If there is no vomiting or worsening symptoms, you can slightly increase the amount. You will end up feeding smaller portions more frequently than what is their usual feeding routine.
3. There are prescription veterinary diets that work well as bland diet alternatives if cooking isn’t your thing! It is always helpful to regularly keep a couple of cans or packets at home. Royal Canin Digestive Low Fat, Hills I/D, Purina EN, or others.
Note: If your pet recovers and you have left over dry GI food, you can keep it fresh by putting it in a Ziploc® bag and placing it in the freezer for emergency use.
The Under the Weather bland diet does not require a veterinary prescription, so you can buy some ahead of time and keep it just in case. They have many flavors, so be sure to pick the one that matches the protein your dog is currently on, i.e., chicken.
For sensitive stomachs. All Natural, 100% human-grade meat (rice & chicken).
How Long to Keep Your Dog on a Bland Diet
Generally, you will keep your dog on a bland diet for one or two weeks. During that time, continue feeding small amounts every 3 to 4 hours. If the diarrhea goes away, then over another one to two weeks, you will slowly transition them back to their regular dog food diet. Do not give treats or any other food than their regular dog food. Once they have been transitioned fully back to their regular dog food for a couple of weeks, then you can begin slowly offering extras such as their treats.
If you switch back to your dog's regular food too quickly, and don't leave enough time for healing and reduction of inflammation, you could end up right back where you started.
Other Things That Can Help With Diarrhea
In addition to rest, fasting, and a bland diet, there are some other things you may find helpful in dealing with diarrhea issues at home.
Probiotics may be helpful when dealing with diarrhea. Since the digestive tract makes up about 60 to 80% of your pet’s immune system, keeping it healthy is important. Probiotics help support a healthy immune system by keeping the intestinal bacteria in good balance and aiding in digestion. You can try regular, unflavored, probiotic-rich yogurt (you want as low a sugar content as possible), or you can pick up a probiotic like Purina’s FortiFlora, Nutramax’s Proviable (tablet or paste), VetriScience Fast Balance GI Paste, VetriScience Vetri Probiotic BD, or Iams’ Prostora Max.
Fiber, such as pumpkin, has been found to help with some cases of diarrhea. It acts as a prebiotic because it stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria by lowering the pH and providing the nutrients they need. Additionally, it helps inhibit the harmful bacteria in the intestines. Always be sure that your dog has access to plenty of fresh water when giving them fiber supplements. In the case of stress-induced diarrhea, starting a fiber supplement a few days prior to the stressful event can help prevent the diarrhea from starting. Psyllium fiber can be purchased over the counter as whole husks, in products like unsweetened, unflavored Metamucil, or this dog-formulated fiber brand Serving: 1 teaspoon for smaller dogs and up to 3 teaspoons for larger dogs, once to twice daily mixed into food. You can also grind the psyllium fiber finer if you want to.
NOTE: Do not use any of the flavored varieties of Metamucil, especially those with chocolate. Additionally, read the labels to be sure they do not contain xylitol – it is very toxic to pets.
Rebound Recuperation Formula for dogs can also be very beneficial. While it isn’t a treatment for diarrhea, it acts as a support for recovery. It helps promote hydration, which is important when dogs have diarrhea. It contains prebiotics and antioxidants, which are essential in helping to support the immune system for recovery. It also helps stimulate them to eat and drink.
Consider blood protein supplements. Supplements that use blood proteins that are rich in immunoglobulins may help reduce inflammation, promote healing, and provide other benefits for dogs. The WINPRO line of supplements (Immunity, Mobility, Allergy, Focus, Training) has been met with very positive feedback from dog owners. In our own experience, our dogs loved the taste of their supplements. You only give your dog one or two (depending on their weight) each day, so a bag of 60 will last you 1–2 months. You should not give your dog more than the recommended amount.
Over-the-Counter Medications and Why They Are Best to Avoid
You may be wondering why I have not mentioned over-the-counter (OTC) human medications, such as Kaopectate®, Pepto Bismol®, or Immodium®, for your pet. The reason being, depending on the cause of the diarrhea, these medications can do more harm than good. They should only be given if recommended by your dog’s veterinarian and only at the dose they advise.
These medications can be toxic to your dog, especially if dosed incorrectly. Pepto Bismol’s and Kaopectate’s active ingredient is bismuth subsalicylate. This ingredient is a derivative of salicylic acid or aspirin. If your dog gets the wrong dose, toxicity can result.
If your dog has intestinal bleeding that you are unaware of, bloody vomit and diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weakness may result. These medications may also affect platelet function, which can affect blood clotting times. When blood does not clot, bleeding continues, which can lead to other issues. If given with any non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as Rimadyl®, DeramaxxTM, etc., there is an increased risk of intestinal ulcers or perforation. It can cause your dog’s stool to look blackish.
Blackish stool in dogs is referred to as melena (digested blood in stool) which can indicate serious medical conditions. This can make diagnosing certain medical issues difficult and possibly add the need for more costly tests. Lastly, the tablet form of the anti-inflammatory will appear radio-opaque (white) on x-rays. This may appear as a metallic foreign body and result in unnecessary surgery or other treatments.
Note if you have a cat: If you have been advised by your veterinarian to give either Pepto Bismol or Kaopectate to your dog and you have a cat, do not let your cat consume these medications. They will cause salicylate toxicity. This can result in anemia, ulcers, and liver failure, regardless of the dose.
Why You Should Use Extreme Caution With Imodium®
Immodium (which goes by the generic name Loperamide) is a synthetic opioid. All opioids are known to cause constipation. They work by slowing down gut motility which allows for more fluid and salts to be drawn back into the body system.
Imodium, when administered at safe levels, is not helpful for pain and, therefore, will not relieve any abdominal discomfort your dog may have. While, in some cases, Imodium may help, there are others where it can cause potentially serious side effects. Some of these side effects include constipation, sedation, bloating, and even pancreatitis.
You should never give Imodium to your dog if:
- Your dog is a herding breed (Sheltie, Australian Shepherd, Collie, etc.). Many herding breed dogs carry a mutant form of the ABCB1 -1 Δ gene that significantly limits their ability to break down certain drugs.
- If your pet has ingested a toxin or has an infection. The diarrhea is a way for their body to flush itself out and remove toxins and infections.
- If your pet has any medical conditions that can make them more susceptible to the negative side effects of the drug. Some health conditions are:
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Addison’s disease
- If your pet is vomiting, has abdominal pain (groaning, rapid panting, avoiding being touched, etc.), and is weak.
- If your pet is very young or old.
What If Home Treatment Doesn't Work?
When in doubt, when concerned, or when the diarrhea extends beyond a day or two, despite your best at-home efforts, your best bet is to have your pet — and their poo — evaluated by your veterinarian. No amount of internet searching and no number of trial and error home remedy attempts can compete with the comprehensive history taking, thorough physical examination, diagnostic testing, and the ability to prescribe safe and effective medications or supplements that only your veterinarian can offer.
Dehydration is a Big Concern
Diarrhea causes dehydration because your dog is losing more fluids than they can take in. This lack of fluid balance prevents their bodies from functioning properly.
Diarrhea Can Cause Nutrient Deficiency
The small intestine is where dogs absorb most of their nutrients from what they ingest. Therefore, when the cause of diarrhea relates to the small intestines, your dog is missing out on a lot of the nutrients they would normally gain from their food. In addition to diarrhea, issues of the small intestines usually cause vomiting (increasing the risks of dehydration) and weight loss (because of the lack of nutrients).
Why Dogs Get Diarrhea
There can be many causes of diarrhea in dogs. Typically, dogs will vomit or have diarrhea due to:
- Eating something toxic (grapes, chocolate, human medications, etc.) or a foreign object (part of a dog toy, piece of a stick, underwear and socks are common culprits)
- Too many table scraps or fatty foods like grease, bacon, etc. can also upset your dog's stomach
- Food allergy
- Rapid food change (switching between types or brands of food too quickly)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Intestinal parasites
- Intestinal cancer
- Metabolic disease: kidney disease, pancreatitis, thyroid disease, and others
- Viral or bacterial conditions, like hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE)
- Reaction to medications
When fecal matter moves through the intestines faster than normal, and there is decreased absorption of water, nutrients, and electrolytes, the result is diarrhea. It is a symptom of diseases or other issues like toxins, foreign body ingestion, etc., that affect the small intestines, large intestines, or other organs outside the gastrointestinal tract.
Be Prepared to Answer Your Veterinarian's Questions
Being able to answer your vet's questions about your pet’s diet, environment, habits, behavior and knowing the details about your dog’s diarrhea will aid in narrowing the list of possible causes.
By narrowing the list of possible causes, this also helps determine if and what specific tests are needed or if you will be able to treat the issue with some medications at home.
There are different characteristics for when diseases cause small intestinal diarrhea versus large intestinal diarrheas, and the diagnosis and treatment for both are generally different. Here are some details to pay attention to when you suspect your dog has diarrhea.
Characteristics of Small Intestinal Diarrhea:
- Large amounts of stool
- Mild increase in frequency (3 to 5 bowel movements per day)
- No straining or difficulty pooping
- Often accompanied by vomiting
- Pets often lose weight
- Excess gas may be noted
- Prominent gut sounds may be heard
- If blood is present, it is digested, and the stool will look black or tarry
Small intestinal diarrhea can be caused by any of the following:
- Canine parvovirus
- Canine coronavirus
- Canine distemper
- Intestinal parasites
- Foreign bodies such as sticks, bones, etc. that get stuck in the intestines
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Dietary indiscretion
- Sudden changes in diet
- Food allergies
- Intestinal tumors
Characteristics of Large Intestinal Diarrhea:
- Small amounts of stool
- Increased frequency of pooping – greater than 5 times per day
- Straining is noted
- If blood is present, it is bright red
- Stool may contain mucus
- Normally vomiting is absent
- Pets normally do not lose weight
Large Intestinal diarrhea can be caused by the following:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Colonic ulcers
As mentioned, there are organs outside the intestinal tract that can potentially cause diarrhea. Diseases that affect the kidneys, liver, and pancreas can all cause diarrhea.
What Your Veterinarian Is Likely to Do
- History: Like any good investigation, a thorough questioning is crucial to the process of determining the cause of your pet’s problems. It’s true for your dog’s diarrhea. It’s true for ANY problems your pet might be having. Typical historical questions your vet may ask when your pet is presented with diarrhea might include:
a) How long has the diarrhea been going on?
b) What does the stool look like — what color is it, is there any blood, etc.? (Here’s where it’s really nice if you’ve brought a fresh sample of it – about 2 tablespoons, or at least a clear picture of it — I know, we’ve got the best job, don’t we!)
c) Is your pet on any medications or supplements?
d) What is your pet’s regular diet? This includes their dog food, treats (including human table food), and any other supplements. Take a photo of the bag and ingredient list if you can.
e) Has your dog recently gotten into the trash or compost?
f) Has your dog been around multiple other pets — including in your own home — and are those pets similarly affected?
The list truly goes on and on and gets refined and adapted depending on your answers. History taking is truly an art… and a very important one at that!
- Physical Examination: Along with the history, the importance of a thorough physical examination truly cannot be understated. Your vet will evaluate and pick up on important things during the course of their physical examination. These include whether or not your pet’s abdomen is painful or if there is abnormal fluid present within their abdomen. Whether or not there is a mass or foreign body within your pet’s rectum or elsewhere within your pet’s digestive tract or other body systems. They can evaluate your pet’s anal sacs to determine if they are infected (yes, something that simple can cause bad diarrhea). They’ll be able to evaluate if your pet is dehydrated or hypovolemic (low blood volume). There really is a wealth of important information that your vet will obtain from their physical examination of your dog.
- Diagnostic Testing: Depending on what your vet is finding during the course of the history taking (this is why knowing the above characteristics about small intestinal diarrhea versus large is beneficial) and physical examination, they may well be recommending certain diagnostic tests to help “rule in” or “rule out” potential underlying causes.
Often times the first “go-to” test for investigating diarrhea in dogs is a fecal float and smear — a test that looks primarily for intestinal parasites and abnormal intestinal bacteria. There are also quick “bench side” tests to look for specific infectious organisms like Giardia and canine parvovirus. Similarly, your vet might recommend blood testing to evaluate for the presence of diarrhea-causing conditions such as pancreatitis, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or others. Radiographs (x-rays), ultrasound, or other diagnostic imaging may also be necessary. There are also times when endoscopy to visualize the tissue is essential. This involves sliding a flexible tube with a light and camera into the upper or lower gastrointestinal tract. In some cases, biopsies of the tissue are taken during this procedure.
Lastly, surgery may be needed to take thicker biopsy samples from several different parts of the intestines to make a finalized diagnosis. Which tests your vet will recommend will be based on their initial impression or diagnosis for each of the potential underlying causes of your dog’s diarrhea.
- Treatments: Some pets and some conditions require little to no treatment beyond a “bland diet” and “passage of time” to resolve the diarrhea. However, many cases and most that go on for greater than 24–48 hours need some treatment. What’s best, what’s safe, and what’s likely to be most effective will best be determined by the results of the history, physical exam, and diagnostic testing.
Basic treatments often include intravenous fluids, medications to help stop the diarrhea (anti-diarrheal medications meant for dogs), dewormers, medications to treat nausea, and possibly pain medications. There are also times basic treatments involve dietary changes. When the causes of diarrhea are more involved (food issues, disease, or cancer), more involved and specialized medications and treatments will be required. There are times, a referral to a specialist may be recommended.
It is important to regularly (several times per week) monitor your dog’s bathroom habits – even if they are shy about it! This helps you know what is normal and abnormal for them. It will alert you to problems sooner – which may avoid a vet visit. These key pieces of information – change in pooping habits, changes in poop color, firmness, amount, etc. – are very valuable when providing information to your dog’s veterinarian. It may save you a lot of time and possibly eliminate a lot of extra testing.