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My Dog Has Diarrhea But Is Acting Fine, What Should I Do?

  • 10 min read

Dr. Ruth MacPete, DVM

Every dog owner has had to clean up after their pet’s diarrhea. Besides being messy, the problem with your pet having diarrhea is that the causes range from mild to medical emergency.

To make matters harder for pet parents, what do you do if your dog has diarrhea but seem fine? Do you wait for it to get better on its own or rush to the ER?

This blog will list the various causes of diarrhea in dogs and with the goal of helping pet parents learn when it is safe to watch and wait, and when they should contact their veterinarian or go to the ER.

Causes of Diarrhea in Dogs

As previously mentioned, the causes of diarrhea in dogs range from mild conditions that usually resolve on their own, to life-threatening conditions that require emergency surgery. Here are some of the most common causes of diarrhea in dogs:

1. Dietary indiscretion

Dietary indiscretion is the most common cause of diarrhea in dogs. Dietary indiscretion is the fancy medical way of saying your dog ate something they shouldn’t have. For example, eating garbage, cat litter, cat food, or a big helping of human food can upset your dog’s stomach and lead to diarrhea, lack of appetite, and even vomiting.

2. Overeating

Overeating even their normal healthy diet can put a lot of stress on your dog’s digestive system. As a result, their body struggles to digest the extra food and ends up expelling “surplus food” as diarrhea.

3. Contaminated Food

Eating contaminated food or drink, such as uncooked food, garbage, old eggs, etc. can lead to food poisoning and an upset stomach.

4. Food Allergies

Diarrhea can be a common symptom if your dog has food allergies or any type of food intolerance.

5. Poisoning

Your dog can eat poisonous toxins, plants, and chemicals from the backyard or even during their walk in the park. In most cases, an upset stomach and diarrhea will be the first few symptoms of poisoning in your dog.

6. Eating Human Food

Not every human food is safe or healthy for a dog. In fact, they can even get diarrhea by eating oily and fatty human food.

7. Dietary Change

Any abrupt changes in your dog’s diet will disturb their digestive system and lead to diarrhea. When changing your dog’s diet, it is always a good idea to gradually mix-in their new food.

8. Side Effects of the Medicine

A lot of medicines can have unwanted side effects. If you recently started a new medication, check with your veterinarian if it could be a cause of their diarrhea.

9. Virus

Many viruses including parvovirus, distemper, herpesvirus, and rotavirus cause diarrhea in dogs.

10. Bacteria

Similar to viruses, many bacteria, such as clostridium, helicobacter, and campylobacter can cause diarrhea.

11. Intestinal Blockage

Intestinal blockage occurs when your dog eats a foreign object that is unable to pass through their intestines. The usual symptoms are vomiting, lack of appetite, abdominal pain, and lack of bowel movements. Initially, with a partial obstruction, diarrhea can be seen. Intestinal blockage is a life-threatening condition that requires surgery.

12. Parasites

Parasites including intestinal worms and protozoal parasites, like giardia, can attach to the intestinal wall and cause diarrhea in dogs.

13. Stress
Any change in the physical environment, like loud outside noises, boarding, or even meeting new people can make your dog stressed and trigger “stress diarrhea.”

14. Ulcers
Ulcers can form due to various reasons. Ulcers can damage the protective lining of your dog’s digestive tract leading to many health issues including diarrhea.

15. Bowel Diseases

Various bowel diseases like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can affect your dog's intestines and cause chronic diarrhea.

16. Metabolic Disease

Different types of metabolic disorders can cause diarrhea in pets. Liver diseases in dogs can cause various gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms including diarrhea. Kidney disease can also cause diarrhea. Diarrhea is one of the clinical signs of advance kidney failure in dogs. Lastly, hyperthyroidism is a common metabolic cause of diarrhea.

17. Exocrine Pancreatic insufficiency

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) occurs when the pancreas no longer produces the enzymes necessary to break down food in the intestine. Since the food cannot be absorbs, EPI causes chronic diarrhea due to malabsorption.

18. Neoplasia

Cancer, such as lymphosarcoma, primary intestinal cancer, or metastatic cancer affecting the GI tract can cause diarrhea.

Things to Consider When Your Dog Has Diarrhea

Diarrhea is a common problem that affects our pets. The challenge is knowing when you should worry about it. Although diarrhea it is not normal, just like with humans, diarrhea can be transient and resolve on its own. If your pet has one episode of diarrhea but is eating, drinking, and otherwise acting normally, you can wait and see if it goes away on its own.

However, if your pet continues to have loose stool, or has other symptoms like vomiting, is not eating, or is acting lethargic, you should take them to their veterinarian as soon as possible and remember to bring a fresh stool sample with you if possible.

Below are a few more things that’ll help you decide what you should do when your dog has diarrhea:

Duration

Diarrhea often occurs suddenly and can last for days to weeks. Acute diarrhea generally lasts 1-2 days and often goes away on its own. On the other hand, chronic diarrhea can last weeks and typically requires treatment. Chronic diarrhea can lead to weight loss, dry skin, and lack of energy.

If your dog’s diarrhea lasts more than 2 days, or they have other symptoms such as vomiting, lack of appetite, lethargy, or abdominal pain, you should take your dog to your veterinarian. Left untreated, diarrhea can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and even death.

Stool Color

The color of your dog’s stool can tell a lot about their overall health. In general, a healthy bowel movement is brown in color, but let’s also discuss what other stool colors could indicate:

  • Dark black or maroon – can indicate internal bleeding
  • Green – can indicate that they have eaten a large amount of grass or can also be bile
  • Yellow or orange  can be a sign of liver issues
  • Bloody  Bright red blood streaks can be caused to various reasons including inflammation, viral and bacterial infections, or rectal injury
  • White spots on stool – may be tapeworms

However, sometimes the color of your dog’s stool may be due to the food they ate and mean nothing! Let your veterinarian know if you are seeing changes in your pet’s stool color.

Foreign Objects

When you’re not looking, your dog can swallow many inedible things including toilet paper, a small piece of cloth, sharp sticks, food wrappers, rocks, socks, and many other foreign objects. These objects can get lodged into their digestive tract causing an internal blockage. Diarrhea is usually not a symptom of a foreign body obstruction. The typical symptoms of an obstruction are vomiting, abdominal pain, and lack of eating. However, a partial obstruction can be associated with diarrhea and should be suspected if your dog has a tendency to chew things they shouldn’t.  If you think your dog may have eaten something it shouldn’t have, contact your veterinarian right away. Left untreated a foreign body can be fatal.

Additional Symptoms

Depending on the cause, diarrhea can either present itself alone or can be accompanied by other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Vomiting in combination with diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances that require you to take your dog to the veterinarian for intravenous fluids and medications to stop the vomiting and diarrhea.

Furthermore, when diarrhea is accompanied by other clinical signs it could be an indication of a more serious underlying health issue.

Is it Chronic vs Acute Diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea generally lasts 1-2 days and often goes away on its own. If your dog appears otherwise healthy and does not have other symptoms, like vomiting, or lack of appetite, you can observe them at home and feed them a bland diet. Be sure they are drinking plenty of water.

On the other hand, chronic diarrhea can last weeks and lead to weight loss, dry skin, and lack of energy. If your dog has diarrhea that does not improve after one week, they may need medical attention and you should make an appointment to see your veterinarian.

Again, do not wait a week if your dog has other symptoms besides diarrhea, like vomiting, not eating or is acting lethargic. If you pet has other symptoms besides diarrhea, they should  be seen by your veterinarian right away.

Is it Diarrhea or just loose stool?

While these two terms are used interchangeably, they don’t always mean the same thing. Loose stool just means watery stool, while diarrhea means loose stools with increased frequency of bowel movements, like 3 or more per day, or with high volume of water stool.

Nonetheless, both these conditions should not last for more than 1-2 days.

Is it Explosive Diarrhea?

If your dog is passing large volumes of watery stool, they are suffering from explosive diarrhea. This can quickly result in dehydration.

In such cases, you’ll have to make sure they are drinking plenty of water and if after 24 hours their condition doesn’t improve, you should call your veterinarian. If they are not drinking water, see your veterinarian right away.

Is it Just Watery Stool?

Sometimes, your dog can pass watery stool due to changes in their diet or overeating. When this happens more than once a day it means they have diarrhea. And as stated above, this can either resolve on its own or they might need medical care depending on the duration and other symptoms.

Diagnosis of Diarrhea

Finding the cause of your dog’s diarrhea can be challenging. Your veterinarian has the training and tools to help you find and treat the underlying cause of your pet’s diarrhea.

Since there are many different reasons for diarrhea, they’ll likely suggest diagnostic tests to determine the exact cause. Most likely your veterinarian will want a fecal test. Fecal tests allow them to determine if your pet has intestinal parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, coccidia, and giardia.

Since intestinal parasites live in your pet’s gastrointestinal tract, they are usually hidden from view. The only way to detect and identify most intestinal parasites is by doing a fecal test.

Depending on your dog’s other symptoms and examination findings, your veterinarian may also want to do radiographs, also called x-rays, to look for signs of obstruction, cancer, or a foreign body. Finally, your veterinarian may order bloodwork to look for metabolic diseases like liver disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, and more.

Diarrhea Treatment

Treatment for diarrhea depends on the cause. Mild cases of diarrhea may resolve on their own. If the cause is dietary indiscretion, your veterinarian may recommend a bland diet and avoiding the offending food. If your dog has intestinal parasites, your veterinarian will prescribe anti-parasitic medications targeting the parasite.

On the other hand, metabolic diseases, such as liver disease, diabetes, or pancreatitis may require more extensive treatment, and more serious causes, like intestinal obstruction, may require emergency surgery.

Your veterinarian may also prescribe anti-diarrheal medications and/or a prescription diet to treat your dog’s diarrhea.

Diarrhea Prevention

Although there’s no way to prevent diarrhea, there are some precautions you can take to make it less likely to happen.

First, never change your dog’s diet abruptly. This is one of the most common causes of diarrhea. If you want to change their food, make the change by gradually mixing increasingly larger proportions of the new food over the course of a week until the old food is completely replaced.

Second, avoid sharing your food with your pets. Some dogs have sensitive stomachs and human food is often too rich for their GI tracts. Our good intentions can unfortunately make our pets sick.

Also, keep your pet healthy by taking them to the veterinarian for annual check-ups and make sure your pet is on year-round parasite preventatives.

Lastly, keep your dog away from trash, poisons, and chemicals, and never give them any medication (even over the counter medication) without first checking with your veterinarian. Many medications that are safe for us can be toxic and even deadly to our pets.

At-Home Remedies if Your Dog has Diarrhea

If your dog has one episode of diarrhea and otherwise has no other symptoms and appears normal, taking them to the ER may not be necessary as the first course of action. Under these circumstances, it may be reasonable to wait for a day or so to see whether their diarrhea stops on its own.

During this time, you can try some of the following at-home remedies to settle your dog’s stomach and help resolve their diarrhea.

1. Bland Diet

Feeding your dog a bland diet when they have diarrhea is one of the most common treatments when they’re suffering from diarrhea. Plain white rice, unseasoned boiled chicken, low-fat ground turkey, or egg are a few great options to serve to your dog.

2. Reduce quantity

Sometimes overeating can result in diarrhea. If you think your dog has diarrhea from overeating, reduce the amount of food you feed them.

3. Fasting

Some veterinarians recommend skipping a meal or two in order for your dog’s gastrointestinal tract to settle down. Then start your dog on a bland diet. Remember not to withhold water. Be sure your pet is drinking plenty of water as diarrhea causes them to loss fluids and they can become dehydrated quickly. This method is not recommended for puppies and older dogs. To find out if this method is appropriate for your dog, check with your veterinarian first.

4. Food with Starch

Starchy food like boiled potatoes and rice can help reduce diarrhea by binding your dog’s stool and making it firmer.

5. Fibrous Diet

A high-fiber diet can also help with diarrhea. A high-fiber diet can help remove excess fluid, add bulk to the stool, and promote bowel regularity in dogs. You can add unsweetened canned pumpkin to your dog’s food to increase the amount of fiber they are getting.

6. Probiotics

Probiotics can help prevent and treat diarrhea in dogs. You can either consult with your veterinarian about adding probiotic supplements to your dog’s diet or you can feed them food like yogurt that act as natural probiotics.

7. Prebiotics

Prebiotics are the food for probiotics. They work together to support the growth of good bacteria in the dog’s gut which improves digestion and treats diarrhea.

Like probiotics, you can either buy supplements of prebiotics or feed your dog foods like apple, chicory root, oats and bananas that are a rich source of prebiotics. In addition to containing prebiotics, bananas are also a fiber-rich food making them great for the gut.

8. Hydration

When a dog has diarrhea, their body loses excessive fluid which can result in dehydration if they are not drinking enough water to compensate for the fluid loss. Left untreated dehydration can be fatal. If your pet has diarrhea, be sure they are drinking plenty of water. You can add water to their food and give them ice chips. If they are not drinking contact your veterinarian right away.

Final Thoughts

Diarrhea is a very common digestive problem seen from time to time in dogs. Hopefully these tips will help you decide if your dog with diarrhea needs to see their veterinarian right away or can wait. Remember, your veterinarian is your best resource to keep your pet healthy. When in doubt give your veterinarian a call. They will help you decide if your dog needs to be seen and can also suggest the best home remedies for your pet.

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