Everything you need to know to handle your dog's constipation

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Everything you need to know to handle your dog's constipation - Picture of a dog straining to poop in front of a brick wall.

Constipation is an uncomfortable experience for anyone who has gone through it. While constipation isn’t common in dogs, it can lead to severe health consequences when left untreated. If you have a dog, read on to learn:

  • How do I know if my dog is constipated?
  • How is canine constipation diagnosed and treated?
  • Why is my dog constipated?
  • Can I help my constipated dog at home?
  • Can I prevent constipation in my dog?

Constipation in dogs is uncommon, and nearly always caused by another medical issue that needs to be treated. The constipation itself is uncomfortable and can be dangerous long-term as well. Ensuring ample exercise, providing a high-quality diet, and getting routine checkups are essential to preventing constipation in dogs.

What is canine constipation?

Dogs are constipated when they strain to defecate and have difficulty emptying the colon. Constipated dogs may strain to pass small, hard stools or no stool at all. Straining seen in constipation can sometimes be confused with straining due to diarrhea or urinary issues. Diarrhea is a much more common cause of unproductive straining in dogs than constipation.

A dog who has not defecated in a few days or has infrequent bowel movements may not be constipated. If a dog has recently fasted for surgery or as symptomatic relief of diarrhea, they may go a few days before defecating again. If there is no unproductive straining or other symptoms such as vomiting or lethargy, the dog is likely okay and simply does not need to defecate.

What are canine obstipation and megacolon?

Obstipation and megacolon can occur in dogs when constipation is not treated or becomes chronic. Obstipation occurs when hard fecal mass in the colon is too large to pass and needs to be extracted manually. Meanwhile, megacolon occurs when the colon dilates and cannot contract and pass feces. Both obstipation and megacolon are serious conditions that require ongoing and sometimes invasive treatments, including surgery.

What are the signs of constipation in dogs?

Constipated dogs strain to empty their bowels and either pass no stool or small, hard, dry fecal matter. A dog that is not straining is likely not constipated, even if they have not pooped in a few days. This is normal in some situations, such as after anesthesia. Other symptoms associated with constipation in dogs include:

Other conditions, such as urinary tract infections and irritation from diarrhea, are more common causes of straining in dogs. Straining to urinate is considered an emergency, so it’s important to keep a close eye on your dog and familiarize yourself with the distinction between diarrhea, constipation, and straining to urinate. When in doubt, talk to a vet for help.

Abdominal pain, swelling, and signs of discomfort can occur when fecal matter enlarges the colon and is difficult to pass on its own. Straining to defecate often causes small streaks or drops of blood to appear around the stools or anus. Some dogs may strain so hard that they vomit as well.

How is constipation diagnosed in dogs?

Veterinarians look for a full rectum, the passage of hard, dry stools, or the inability to defecate when straining. Not defecating after fasting, anesthesia, or a bout of diarrhea is normal and not a cause for concern unless there is straining or other symptoms. Abdominal palpation and a rectal exam are critical components of a physical exam to determine if a dog is constipated and should be expected when seeing a vet. X-rays may be recommended as well to help visualize how full the rectum and colon are and the size of the fecal mass.

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“Since constipation usually occurs secondarily to another medical issue, a thorough diagnostic workup is often necessary,” explains Vetster veterinarian Dr. Jo Myers. “Identifying and treating the underlying cause is the primary concern for dogs with constipation.” The recommended diagnostic testing may include blood work and diagnostic imaging. Blood tests can help point to the underlying cause of constipation, such as diabetes or kidney disease, while X-rays can help identify internal abnormalities preventing normal passage of feces.

How do veterinarians treat constipation in dogs?

The treatment of constipation depends on what is causing it. Temporary, mild constipation may occur after a dog eats a large amount of something hard, dry, or indigestible and difficult to pass. This type of constipation is unlikely to recur as long as the material the dog ingested is kept out of reach.

For constipation caused by medical issues, the condition needs to be identified and treated to prevent the constipation from recurring. While the underlying cause is being treated, symptomatic treatment may be recommended based on the individual dog’s circumstances. Symptomatic treatment of constipation may include:

  • Rehydration through fluid therapy
  • Enemas
  • Laxatives or stool softeners
  • Fiber supplementation
  • Manually removing the impacted stools under anesthesia

Note: enemas should only be given to pets by a veterinarian. It is not safe for you or your dog to try and administer an enema at home.

Veterinarians can also offer advice on how to treat mild constipation at home. It’s important to note even in mild cases, home remedies may not be an option depending on the specifics of your dog’s case. Be advised natural remedies such as olive oil can do more harm than good. Always consult a veterinarian before attempting to treat your dog’s constipation from home.

Chronic constipation requires ongoing management with a vet’s guidance. Therapeutic treatments to help prevent future bouts of constipation require veterinary input and may include:

  • Therapeutic diets
  • Medications and therapies for arthritis and mobility issues
  • Weight management
  • Regular exercise
  • Providing plenty of water around the home
  • Treatment of underlying conditions such as liver, kidney, or prostate disease
  • Removal of tumors or other structures hindering fecal movement

Providing adequate exercise helps promote normal bowel movements as well as maintain a healthy weight. Drinking plenty of clean water and eating a balanced diet will also help prevent constipation. For those at risk, an appropriate diet is important for preventing constipation. Preventing future bouts of constipation in dogs who are at risk is essential to prevent severe conditions such as megacolon and obstipation.

How are megacolon and obstipation treated in dogs?

Obstipated patients who have a fecal mass too large to pass on its own often require manual extraction under anesthesia or surgery to safely remove it. Dogs with megacolon may require frequent constipation treatments with a veterinarian. In severe cases of both obstipation and megacolon, portions of the diseased or damaged colon may need to be surgically removed. Megacolon is a chronic condition that requires continuous care and supervision from a vet. Early intervention is the best way to prevent megacolon and obstipation.

Can I treat my dog’s constipation at home?

It’s best to consult a veterinarian before attempting to treat your dog’s constipation at home. A vet may direct you to provide at-home care with laxatives, a diet change, or stool softeners. Offering medications such as laxatives, giving oil by mouth, or changing a dog’s diet can be dangerous for some individuals and make the situation worse. Depending on the specifics of your situation, it might be necessary to take your dog to the vet if recommended home remedies aren’t successful in resolving the problem.

What causes canine constipation?

Constipation in dogs occurs when fecal matter accumulates in the rectum and colon due to something preventing normal passage. The specific mechanism causing this accumulation depends on how the underlying disease process impacts the body. Some conditions associated with constipation may cause dehydration. Prolonged dehydration can make the feces firmer and more difficult to pass as the intestines remove as much water as possible during digestion to compensate. Other conditions may cause structural or physiological impairment of the bowels, making them less effective at pushing feces along the tract.

Diseases such as liver and kidney disease often lead to bouts of constipation due to chronic dehydration. Spinal injuries, disc disease, drugs or toxins, or infectious diseases can interfere with the normal ability of the rectum and colon to do their job, preventing the passage of stool. Finally, conditions such as prostate enlargement, pelvic injuries that have healed incorrectly, matted fur blocking the anus, or tumors can also make passing feces difficult.

Constipation may also be related to diet or intake of unusual items. Ingesting something dry, irritating, or indigestible can cause stools to become overly hard and difficult to pass. Bones, drywall, and foreign objects like pieces of toys can all cause hard stools.

Senior dogs require more frequent wellness exams than younger adult dogs due to their higher likelihood of developing a chronic health condition such as arthritis or obesity. As a result, they are more likely to experience constipation than younger dogs. Talk to a vet about your senior dog’s care and how to prevent bouts of constipation from occurring.

Mobility issues

Dogs that have difficulty moving due to age, arthritis, obesity, or injuries are more likely to become constipated. Lack of exercise and movement in these dogs can make defecating difficult compared to  younger dogs who are able to move and exercise without difficulty.

Chronic disease

Some types of chronic illness can lead to dehydration, which can cause dry stools that are difficult to pass. Other diseases can also hinder movement of the digestive tract. Chronic conditions that can lead to constipation include:

Treating these underlying conditions is essential to prevent recurrent constipation. For dogs with these conditions that are at risk of developing constipation, ongoing care is essential to prevent and treat cases of constipation.

Other causes of constipation

Many other conditions inhibit the normal movement of feces and lead to constipation. Any condition that blocks the rectum, colon, or anus can prevent feces from moving normally. These conditions include:

Causes of constipation are numerous and vary widely, so a full diagnostic workup is often recommended for dogs experiencing it.

How can I help my constipated dog?

Before attempting at-home constipation treatment, start by determining if your dog is truly constipated or if the straining is due to something else. Straining to urinate is an emergency and needs immediate treatment. If a dog is straining due to diarrhea, talk with a vet to determine the right course of action. If your dog has gone a few days without pooping but is not straining to defecate, they are probably fine unless they are showing other concerning symptoms, such as lack of appetite.

Since constipation is usually caused by another issue, it’s important to seek veterinary advice instead of simply providing at-home remedies. Seek veterinary care to determine the underlying cause and prevent recurring constipation. The underlying cause is likely an issue that needs to be treated as well to ensure your pup is back at it and comfortable in the long-term.

Once you have confirmed your dog’s constipation is expected to resolve, there are steps you can take to help move things along and prevent recurrence.

Check the rear end

Dogs with severely matted hair around the anus cannot successfully defecate due to the blockage. Regular grooming and sanitary trims around the anus can help prevent fur matting. In addition, pet owners can sometimes see swollen anal glands or an irritated rectum by examining their dog’s hind end. These findings can help your vet determine why your dog is constipated.

Increase exercise

Increasing physical activity and movement can sometimes relieve mild constipation in dogs. Dogs require a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of exercise every day to stay healthy, and this time can also help prevent constipation. Try exercising with your dog by playing fun games inside, trying new activities outdoors, or going on simple walks to maintain motility of your dog’s digestive tract.

Adjust diet

Many bouts of constipation are caused by chronic dehydration. Healthy dogs with access to water usually don’t get dehydrated, so it’s important to see a vet to rule out underlying conditions. Switching from dry food to wet or canned food and providing multiple water bowls throughout the home may also help increase water intake. Increasing dietary fiber with fiber treats or canned pumpkin can also help keep the bowels moving. A nutrition consult with a vet can help you choose the best food or fiber supplement for your dog. Sudden changes to a dog’s diet can worsen digestive issues, so new foods and supplements should be approved by a vet.

Can constipation in dogs be prevented?

There are steps pet parents can take to lessen the risk of constipation in their dogs. Provide a well-balanced diet, access to fresh water, and plenty of exercise. Obese dogs are more likely to experience constipation, so keeping your dog at a healthy weight is essential for prevention. Regular wellness exams and testing can help catch underlying medical conditions and allow vets to treat them to further prevent bouts of constipation. Finally, restrict access to indigestible material such as rocks and dirt and minimize offering bones to help prevent constipation in your four legged friend.

What should I do if my dog is showing symptoms of constipation?

Any unexpected episode of unproductive straining needs to be seen by a vet right away unless minor diarrhea is also present. Straining to urinate is easily confused for constipation and is an emergency. Consult a vet as quickly as possible if straining produces small, hard stools or none at all.

While mild constipation in a dog who is acting fine otherwise requires prompt attention, it is usually not an emergency. However, seek emergency attention right away if your dog exhibits any of the following:

Other symptoms that sometimes accompany constipation, such as vomiting and lethargy, are common symptoms of other conditions. Always check for straining and the presence of hard, dry, crumbly stools when your dog is having a bowel movement. If you are unsure why your dog is straining, it’s best to get a vet’s opinion. An online veterinarian can assess your constipated pooch to help determine whether emergency care is needed as well as help maintain chronic constipation long-term.

FAQ - Everything you need to know to handle constipation in dogs

How can I relieve my dog’s constipation?

A vet should be contacted if a dog is struggling to defecate for the first time. Once the underlying cause is identified and addressed, a vet may recommend exercise, a laxative, or stool softener to help relieve a bout of constipation. Always consult a vet before administering medication to your pet.

How does a dog act when constipated?

Dogs with constipation will strain to defecate and either produce small, hard stools or no stool at all. Dogs with constipation may also experience vomiting, lethargy, or loss of appetite. These symptoms also occur with other conditions, so it’s best to talk to a veterinarian if you’re worried your dog might be constipated. A dog who has not defecated for a few days but is not straining is likely not constipated and is expected to have a bowel movement eventually or develop other symptoms.

Is there a natural laxative for dogs?

Exercise, fiber supplementation, and increasing water intake may help minor constipation. Canned pumpkin and fiber treats may also help. Avoid other natural or home remedies, such as olive oil, without asking a veterinarian for guidance. Suddenly changing a dog’s diet or trying a home remedy can cause more harm than good.

*Can my dog’s constipation go away on its own?

Some mild constipation can resolve with minimal interference, but any unproductive straining to use the bathroom needs to be seen by a veterinarian. Untreated constipation can lead to severe health conditions such as obstipation and megacolon. Do not assume your dog’s constipation will go away on its own.

How long can a dog be constipated?

Constipation needs to be addressed right away in dogs. Untreated, prolonged, or recurring constipation can lead to severe health consequences that may require more invasive treatments in the future. It’s much easier to treat constipation early and address its underlying cause than trying to do so after the underlying condition has progressed.