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Dog Diarrhea: When is It Serious and How Do I Stop It?

Reviewed by Dr. Celeste Clements, DVM, DACVIM on Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Posted December 29, 2015 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Sad Dog in Bed

One of the most common problems we see in veterinary medicine is gastrointestinal (GI) upset/diarrhea. Sometimes it surprises me how quickly some clients will rush their dog to the clinic because of a little soft stool. I’m sure part of it is because they don’t want to be cleaning up messes all over the house, but it is also because they are genuinely concerned that the cause may be something serious. So what causes diarrhea in dogs? When should you worry and consult your veterinarian? What can you do at home before you see the doctor?

Causes of diarrhea in dogs
This would be an extremely long list if we went into everything that can cause your dog to have loose stools, but here are some of the top causes:

  • Parasites– Intestinal worms can definitely irritate your dog’s gastrointestinal tract, causing all kinds of diarrhea involving the small and/or large bowels. Significant numbers of diarrhea-causing parasites are more common in young puppies.
  • Infections– Viral or bacterial infections can also cause diarrhea and also occur more frequently in younger dogs.
  • Dietary indiscretion or diet change– A purposeful change in diet from one food to another as well as eating something new/inappropriate (from bacon to grass to rocks) can cause irritation or trauma, resulting in diarrhea.
  • Stress– Just like with people, stress/anxiety/excitement can result in GI upset (especially lower bowel irritation or colitis).
  • Primary inflammatory disorders– Like inflammatory bowel disease in people, inflammatory disorders can cause your dog to develop diarrhea.
  • Metabolic diseases– Metabolic diseases may include disorders of the pancreas, liver or thyroid. There are many other problems that upset the motility or environment in the GI tract resulting in diarrhea.
  • Medications/toxins– Most pet parents know that certain antibiotics can upset the GI tract, but other medications and certain toxins can also cause diarrhea.

What can you do to help stop diarrhea in dogs?
Obviously some of these causes require specific therapy, but some of them may resolve on their own with simple supportive care. In those cases what might your veterinarian suggest that you do at home?

  • Continue to feed— Years ago it was thought that GI upsets required some brief period of fasting to ‘rest’ the bowels. That is true with vomiting, but nowadays we realize that your dog’s intestines need nutrition in order to heal themselves. So don’t withhold food unless your doctor prescribes a fast
  • Choose the right diet— Increasing fiber intake may be an option since it is considered a great ‘equalizer’ (good for constipation but also good for diarrhea). I think it is best to go with multiple smaller meals (say 4 a day) of something that’s easily digestible. That means a low fat, mostly carbohydrate diet: potatoes, pasta, rice with a little bit of chicken, turkey, low fat cottage cheese or yogurt. [Editor’s Note: Ask your veterinarian before making any changes to your dog’s diet.]
  • Ask your veterinarian about medications— You should never assume human medications are safe for dogs. Ask your veterinarian what is safe and for specific dosage instructions.

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Mike has more than 35 years of experience in companion animal veterinary practice and is a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2013.