When your dog has diarrhea, you need solutions quickly. However, figuring out what the underlying problem is difficult, and it may take some time to arrive at a proper diagnosis. We spoke with Dr. Michael Sterns of 4Paws Mobile Veterinary Services in Mountain View, CA about some questions that come up frequently when dog parents and their pups are facing this stressful situation.
If my dog has diarrhea, are there specific things that I should make note of before coming in to an appointment that will help provide a more complete picture of what is going on? If so, what are they?
The best thing to do is to bring in a sample of the stool, or at least a picture. Also take note of:
How long it has been going on?
The consistency: is it always diarrhea, or is it sometimes normal stool and sometimes diarrhea?
Is blood present?
Is it related to an event like boarding or daycare?
Did they eat something they shouldn’t have eaten?
How long should I wait before bringing in my dog if I observe blood in its stool?
No more than 3-4 days. Not only is diarrhea uncomfortable for your pet; the longer it goes on, the greater the risk there is of it developing into a more severe health concern. Dehydration is a common and dangerous result of prolonged diarrhea, especially in small dogs and puppies. Small dogs and puppies are at increased risk because they can only drink small amounts of water at a time and due to their size they lose water more quickly than large dogs.
I know that diarrhea sometimes causes dehydration. How can I tell if my dog is dehydrated?
Feel your pet’s gums -- a well hydrated animal is just like us. If the gums are “tacky,” that is not completely dry and a bit sticky, your pet is at least 2% dehydrated; if they are completely dry, they are at least 5% dehydrated.
What might it mean when my dog’s poop changes from a normal smell to a very foul smell?
This can be caused by several things: a change in food, something affecting motility (your dog’s ability to move food through their digestive tract), or a food sensitivity. It can also be caused by inflammation of the intestines due to a bacterial or viral infection. In puppies coming from a stressful environment with unknown vaccination history, it can be due to parvovirus, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Do you suspect different causes when a dog has continuous diarrhea versus when a dog has “flare-ups”?
When a dog has continuous diarrhea, I know that the bowel is very much out of balance. Food allergies are high on my list of suspects, as they are becoming more and more prevalent. Continuous diarrhea tends to be more of an imminent threat because it can result in an electrolyte imbalance, which can be very dangerous because electrolytes are needed for crucial cellular processes throughout the body, including the heartbeat.
Flare-ups may be related to inflammatory causes. With flare-ups, increasing the pet’s fiber intake is often helpful, because many pets get too little fiber in their diets. Psyllium husk powder and canned pumpkin are both great sources of fiber, though there are lots more to choose from.
What tests are typically run on a pet with diarrhea?
A typical course of testing would be a Comprehensive Fecal Ova and Parasites plus Giardia antigen: this looks for the presence of intestinal worms like hookworms and roundworms that can often cause diarrhea. If the diarrhea is chronic and has been unresponsive to first-line treatment, we run a fecal PCR test to look for the presence of bacterial pathogens like Clostridium difficile or Campylobacter spp.
In conjunction with disease-oriented diagnostics, I would also recommend testing your pet’s stool for proper bacterial balance using AnimalBiome’s gut health microbiome test Doggy Kit. The “gut microbiome” is the term used to refer to all the microscopic organisms (such as bacteria, viruses, and yeast) living in your pet’s gut. They may be tiny, but they have enormous influence over your dog’s health, so making sure they’re properly balanced can go a long way.
By listing every kind of bacteria present and showing how abundant each different type is, the analysis shows how your dog’s gut microbiome compares to the microbiome of a healthy dog. These results can provide insight as to what steps you might take to help prevent diarrhea in the future as well as tips to improve microbiome health based on changes to diet. Having this knowledge in hand allows you to treat your dog’s diarrhea while also promoting long-term health by encouraging a properly balanced gut microbiome.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell dog parents who are managing pets with diarrhea?
Some dogs will not drink enough to rehydrate on their own, so it is extremely important to replenish fluids and electrolytes however you can. Try offering ice chips or a bowl of diluted chicken broth several times daily to entice your dog to drink.
Also consider trying a bland diet like chicken and rice, or talk to your veterinarian for recommendations on diets that can help nourish your pup while you rest their digestive tract. Your pup may need a bland diet and some extra TLC for at least a week, because it can take that long for the intestinal lining to regenerate and return to normal.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and is not intended to be a substitute for a visit with your veterinarian.