Canine Diarrhea:
Causes and Treatment

dog health

Canine diarrhea is a fairly common condition. Even a happy, playful dog can experience diarrhea on occasion. It may be an indicator that your fur kid ate something he/she shouldn't have. On the other hand, it may be an indicator of a serious illness.

Snapshot: Canine Diarrhea
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.
  • Symptoms: Frequent bowel movements that are soft or watery. There may also be mucus and bright red or dark red blood in the stool.

  • Causes: Worms (intestinal parasites); poor quality dog food; a sudden change in diet; too many dog treats or a new type of treat; eating grass; eating rawhide bones, pig ears or other chew toys; eating raw or cooked bones; nervousness or anxiety.
  • Treatment for Mild or Moderate Symptoms: Canned pumpkin can be fed to the dog, a tablespoon for small dogs, 1/4 cup for medium dogs and 1/2 cup for large dogs. If your dog is reluctant to try the pumpkin, add a little maple syrup and mix it in. After feeding the pumpkin, withhold all food for 24 hours. Be sure the dog has fresh water. If the dog is not improved within that time, or if additional symptoms occur, consult a veterinarian.
  • Treatment for Severe Symptoms: If you can see blood in the stool or the dog is vomiting or exhibiting other symptoms in addition to diarrhea, consult a veterinarian immediately. Canine diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration, a serious medical condition. Do not delay seeking medical advice!

Symptoms
Symptoms of canine diarrhea are frequent, soft or watery bowel movements. Sometimes blood or mucus can be seen in the stool.

Causes
Diarrhea is the gastrointestinal tract's way of dealing with irritants--it moves the contents through more quickly than normal, resulting in a bowel movement that is soft or watery.

Canine diarrhea can have many causes: A sudden change in diet; too many doggie treats or a new type of treat; worms (intestinal parasites); eating grass; eating rawhide bones, pig ears or other chew toys; eating raw or cooked bones; nervousness or anxiety. While canine diarrhea resulting from any of these factors should be addressed immediately, it is not likely to cause a serious health threat.

On the other hand, diarrhea in dogs can also be a sign of a serious, sometimes life-threatening illness, including the following:

  • Parvovirus
  • Coccidia
  • Pancreatitis
  • Giardia
  • Distemper

If you are an experienced dog person, you probably have built-in radar that tells you when canine diarrhea is mild or severe. But sometimes even those of us with years of experience can be unsure of the severity if we have a new dog that has diarrhea or a dog we've had for a long time suddenly has diarrhea when its never been an issue before.

The treatments shown here are for mild conditions. Meaning canine diarrhea is not accompanied by other conditions like vomiting or fever, and the dog is otherwise acting normal.

If you have any doubts as to whether or not the canine diarrhea is serious, your veterinarian is the most qualified person to help you make that decision.

Treatment
Canned pumpkin can be effective in stopping diarrhea. Feed canned, pureed pumpkin to your dog, 1/8 to 1/4 cup for small dogs, 1/2 cup for medium dogs and 1 cup for large dogs. If your dog is reluctant to try the pumpkin, add a little maple syrup and mix it in. Try spoon-feeding your dog if he will not eat from a bowel. After feeding the pumpkin, withhold all other food for 24 hours. Provide plenty of fresh water and small amounts of clear chicken or beef broth (preferably no salt). If your dog is not improved within 24 hours, or if additional symptoms appear, consult a veterinarian immediately.

If you take your dog to a veterinarian, he/she is probably going to recommend tests, starting with a stool sample that can be examined under a microscope at the clinic. Depending on what, if anything, is found in the sample, your vet may recommend a blood test. If worms are found in the stool—roundworm, hookworm, whipworm and tapeworm can cause diarrhea—your vet will prescribe a de-worming medication. The type of worm your dog has is going to determine the specific medication. If your dog is on heartworm preventative, it has the added benefit of all but eliminating the chance your dog will acquire most forms of intestinal parasites. But your dog must be free of worms before the heartworm preventative will be effective in preventing worms. In other words, it won't prevent worms if your dog already has them.

If your veterinarian determines that your dog is suffering from a disease such as one of those listed above, the treatment will vary according to the illness.

My experience
I don't think there is any dog health issue I've dealt with more often than diarrhea. Most of our veterinarians over the years have recommended withholding food for 24 hours to give the intestinal tract a chance to rest. I have also, in the last four or five years, made sure I always have a can of pureed pumpkin (with no additives) on hand for the times when one of our dogs has diarrhea (without additional symptoms).

I remember the first time I dealt with diarrhea. We had just adopted Max, our first dog, from a Chicago dog pound in April 1988. While he eventually grew to be a healthy, happy and beautiful dog, Max was a mere 30 lbs. when we adopted him--skin and bones! When he finally reached a healthy weight, he was 60 lbs.

I came down the stairs on Max's first day at our home to find him having diarrhea on our area rug. I could see worms in the stool and immediately took Max to the vet. (While today most animal rescues and shelters test and de-worm dogs prior to adoption, this was not standard practice 22 years ago.)

We found out Max was running a fever and had tapeworms, which explained his painfully thin body. The vet gave Max medicine for the worms and also antibiotics. Although Max hadn't eaten since coming to our house, the vet assured us dogs could live a long time without food. The same was not true of water. He explained Max would quickly become dehydrated, a serious and life-threatening condition, if he stopped drinking.

A day later, Max did stop drinking water. He seemed exhausted and lethargic and just wanted to sleep. We called the vet, who told us to buy a turkey baster.

I will never forget the two of us sitting on the floor of our kitchen in the suburb of Crystal Lake, Illinois, with Max sitting between us. Mike would tip Max's head back while I squirted water down his throat. Max, good sport that he was, obliged us by swallowing.

This continued for several days and very gradually, Max started drinking water again on his own. Next he gained interest in food. We started out with rice and boiled hamburger, eventually transitioning to dry food.

For the first few years of his life with us, Max would have a very delicate intestinal tract, which our vet believed was related to the trauma he had been through. Even eating high quality food, he would periodically have bouts of diarrhea. Eventually though, Max's fickle intestinal track improved and he grew healthy and strong, giving us many years of companionship.

I remember our dog sitter saying to me, "Max is such a good-looking dog. It isn't just that he is beautiful—which he is—it is also the way he holds himself, like a king." I miss that handsome boy. It's in his memory, and the memory of the many dogs who have brought joy (and challenges) to my life that I write this web site.

I want people who love their dogs to have the information they need to make wise decisions on behalf of their best friend.

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