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Dog Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

No one enjoys cleaning up their pet’s smelly, messy diarrhea. And if your pup has loose stools, it’s no fun for them either.

Fortunately, many cases of diarrhea in dogs are transient and mild. But in other cases, diarrhea may be a sign of a serious underlying illness. Regardless of cause, though, your furry friend may need treatment to keep comfortable and avoid severe complications of diarrhea, like dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Here’s what you should know about diarrhea in dogs.

What Causes Diarrhea in Dogs?

Diarrhea means loose, runny, or unformed stool, which is usually accompanied by the urge to “go” more often. This happens when fecal matter moves too quickly through the intestines and there is inadequate absorption of water and nutrients.

Diarrhea isn’t a disease, but rather a symptom that can occur due to a variety of reasons, including diseases of the small intestine, large intestine, or of organs other than the intestinal tract (like the kidney, liver, or pancreas). As such, diarrhea can be an indication of an underlying health problem. 

Some of the most common causes of diarrhea in dogs are:

  • Dietary indiscretion (eating table scraps, garbage, or something from the ground during a walk).
  • A new food.
  • Intestinal parasites (such as giardia)
  • Bacterial infections.
  • Food allergies and sensitivities.
  • Digestive issues such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
  • Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (a sudden onset of severe bloody diarrhea and/or vomiting).
  • Side effects of medications or supplements.
  • Stress, such as boarding, traveling, or a big change at home.
  • Toxin or foreign object ingestion.
  • Medical conditions like kidney or liver problems, certain cancers, and more.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it includes some of the most common things veterinarians diagnose when treating dog diarrhea.

SEE ALSO: What Foods Should My Dog Never Eat?

Is Diarrhea in Dogs Serious?

Depending on the dog and the specific cause of diarrhea, it’s possible the diarrhea could be self-limiting — meaning it will improve on its own in a day or two — and is only a minor inconvenience. In these cases, a dog may need to go outside or to their potty pad more often, but will probably feel like their normal self otherwise.

At the other end of the scale, diarrhea could be associated with something serious, even life threatening — whether it’s the underlying medical condition or the health consequences of acute diarrhea. 

So how do you know if your dog’s diarrhea is serious, or if the diarrhea can safely “run its course” at home?

When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and seek veterinary care. Give us a call if symptoms are mild, or walk-in for a visit if any of the below apply to your pet:

  • Your dog is a puppy (their immune systems aren’t fully developed so they can get ill quickly from common viruses like parvovirus). It’s also best to be on the cautious side with senior dogs and dogs who have underlying medical conditions.
  • Severe or very watery diarrhea, especially if not improving after a day.
  • Bloody diarrhea, or a lot of mucus.
  • Dark or tarry stools.
  • Vomiting with the diarrhea, especially if unable to eat or drink.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Fever, lethargy, or listlessness.
  • Weight loss.
  • Dehydration (if your pet’s gums are dry and pale, instead of pink and moist, that could indicate dehydration).

How Is Diarrhea Treated in Dogs?

Treatment involves a combination of supportive care and addressing the underlying cause.

Supportive care often includes the following:

  • Electrolyte-balanced fluid support. This may be given under the skin as an outpatient procedure or via an IV catheter if a dog needs to be hospitalized.
  • Medications to stop the diarrhea.
  • Medications to soothe the digestive tract.
  • A bland diet or prescription diet for sensitive stomachs.
  • Fasting for 12-24 hours (check with your veterinarian first, as this is not appropriate for all dogs).
  • Probiotics for pets.

For some dogs, especially those who are otherwise healthy and just ate something that upset their stomach, a couple of the above treatments may be all they need. 

Your veterinarian may also recommend diagnostic tests, such as:

  • A fecal check (to look for parasites).
  • Infectious disease testing.
  • Bloodwork.
  • X-rays or an ultrasound.
  • Additional tests as needed.

The number and type of diagnostic tests performed depends on your pup’s symptoms and medical history. After that, additional treatments will address the underlying cause directly. This keeps your pooch as healthy as possible, and minimizes the chance of diarrhea returning after supportive care treatments are finished.

For example, a dog with intestinal worms will receive parasite treatments; dogs with dietary sensitivities may need a special diet long-term; and so on. 

SEE ALSO: Feeding Your Puppy

What Can You Give a Dog for Diarrhea At Home?

If your dog’s diarrhea is severe, or if they’re acting ill or displaying some of the symptoms listed above, visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Regardless of the underlying cause, diarrhea may result in complications such as dehydration, electrolyte loss, bleeding in the intestinal tract, weakening of the protective barrier of the intestines (making a pup more prone to infection), and inability to absorb essential nutrients.

However, if your dog is a healthy adult who has mild to moderate diarrhea, is eating fine, and is otherwise acting like their normal self, it’s usually okay to monitor for a day or two (assuming the diarrhea doesn’t get worse) before seeking veterinary care.

Follow these tips to help your pooch get back to their normal self:

  • Make sure water is available to your pooch at all times.
  • Let your dog outside more often than usual or put down extra potty pads, and don’t scold them for accidents in the home. With diarrhea, they can’t “hold it in” the way they usually can.
  • Fast your dog for 12-24 hours (for healthy adult dogs only, not for puppies, seniors, dogs with certain medical conditions, or small dogs who are prone to low blood sugar).
  • Try a bland diet for a few days, such as plain white meat chicken or low-fat cottage cheese with white rice. Some pups may also enjoy plain, cooked sweet potato, which adds fiber. Additionally, you can call your vet and ask about picking up a sensitive stomach food.
  • Don’t give your dog human medications without checking with your veterinarian first — many are not safe for pets!

Preventing Diarrhea in Dogs

To prevent diarrhea in the first place, follow the below. 

  • Keep your pooch up to date on all routine care, including vaccines and parasite prevention.
  • Block access to garbage.
  • Avoid feeding table scraps, especially fatty, creamy, or spicy items.
  • If you need to change dog foods, do it gradually over 1-2 weeks.
  • Ask your vet about probiotics or other supportive measures if your dog gets stressed while boarding, during travel, etc.

Diarrhea is one of the most common reasons for a veterinary visit. So there’s a good chance your dog will have at least a few episodes in their lifetime.

With a few precautions, you can minimize diarrhea episodes — so an upset stomach won’t interfere with playtime, cuddle time, and all the other activities your dog loves!

SEE ALSO: How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Sick?

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