Managing dog diarrhea: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

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Managing dog diarrhea: Causes, symptoms, and treatments - a beagle sitting in a grassy yard

Picking up after your dog is a necessary yet unpleasant task for pet parents everywhere. You may not realize it but one positive aspect of this otherwise burdensome chore is scooping your dog’s poop every day provides baseline information about your furry friend’s health. Unfortunately, diarrhea in dogs is incredibly common and can occur for various reasons. If your dog’s stool quality suddenly shifts, it is best to seek advice from your vet, especially if diarrhea is persisting. Continue reading if you've ever wanted to know:

  • What does diarrhea in dogs look like?
  • What causes dog diarrhea?
  • How do I figure out the cause of my dog's diarrhea?
  • What should I do when my dog has diarrhea?
  • What are the best foods for dogs with diarrhea?
  • When should I contact a vet about my dog's diarrhea?

Diarrhea presents itself in various ways. This means there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to treating the problem. Some cases resolve on their own. Others require symptomatic treatment. If in doubt, it's best to contact your veterinarian for support. An online virtual care appointment is a quick, hassle-free way to receive actionable advice regarding the best course of treatment for your dog's diarrhea.

What does diarrhea in dogs look like?

The most common sign of diarrhea in dogs is the passing of unformed, loose, or runny stools. Unfortunate accidents and messy clean-ups mean this is a symptom that most pet parents are uncomfortably familiar with. In addition, diarrhea may have a different color from your dog's regular stools. It could also have an unusually foul odor. You may notice the presence of blood or mucus in the stool.

It's important to note that these additional characteristics may or may not be present. In some cases, diarrhea can look entirely normal aside from being slightly looser than your dog's usual stools. To better assess its condition, examine your dog's behavior for signs of digestive tract trouble. Dogs with diarrhea may experience:

  • An increased frequency of bowel movements
  • Increased urgency to defecate, potentially leading to accidents
  • Straining when defecating (don't mistake this for constipation)
  • Loss of appetite or willingness to drink water (sometimes, but not always)
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy, weakness, or other changes in behavior and energy levels

Every case of diarrhea is different. Some signs are obvious, others less so. Even if your dog seems otherwise fine, you should consult your vet if your dog has loose stools for an extended period of time.

Diarrhea comes in many shapes and sizes

"We often think of diarrhea as a liquid or watery substance, but this isn't always the case," explains Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian. "Diarrhea can range from completely liquid to slightly loose. A fecal scoring chart is an excellent way to compare the consistency of your pet's stools with the normal range. On the fecal scoring chart, a score on or between 1 (liquid) and 2.5 (moist) is an indication that your dog's feces are looser than they should be."

A graphic of the quote above

Stool color also varies. Your dog's diarrhea could be brown, black and tarry, dark red, clear, or other colors. If other symptoms accompany your dog's diarrhea, contact your vet. In addition, if your healthy adult dog has no pre-existing health conditions and no other symptoms but produces unformed, loose stools for an extended period, schedule a consultation with your vet for advice.

What causes dog diarrhea?

Diarrhea is typically a sign of something affecting your canine's digestive tract. Mild cases of diarrhea are usually the result of your dog eating something unusual, but some cases may be more serious. Possible causes of bouts of diarrhea in dogs include:

In some cases the first step to effective treatment is uncovering the cause of your dog's gastrointestinal tract upset. If you're unsure or would prefer not to wait, don't hesitate to reach out to your vet. They can evaluate your pet and advise the best course of treatment.

How do I figure out the cause of my dog's diarrhea?

Diarrhea in dogs often occurs suddenly and without warning. This means it can be tough to pinpoint the root cause of the problem. It's always best to contact your vet if you're uncertain. Here are some of the questions you can ask to make a preliminary assessment.

  • Has my dog eaten any food it shouldn't have? Has any food mysteriously disappeared from your kitchen counter? Does your dog have access to your garbage can? If your canine has consumed something that doesn't agree with them, it may be the source of tummy troubles.
  • Has my dog's diet changed recently? Consider if a sudden change in diet could be the cause of your dog's upset stomach. Dogs may experience diarrhea as their bodies adjust to new foods or eating routines.
  • Does my dog have any known allergies or intolerances? Certain dogs have allergies or stomach sensitivities to ingredients like beef, chicken, or pork. Food allergies in dogs are uncommon and difficult to diagnose, but if your dog has one it’s crucial to avoid the problematic ingredient.
  • Are my houseplants and household chemicals out of reach? Houseplants can be toxic to dogs, irritate the intestinal tract, and cause diarrhea. If your dog's diarrhea is accompanied by vomiting, excessive drooling, or difficulty when walking, consider that your dog may have consumed something toxic. If other symptoms accompany your dog's diarrhea, contact your vet right away.

In some cases, it isn’t possible to determine the cause of your dog's diarrhea until a veterinarian performs diagnostic testing. Contact your vet for advice if you're uncertain, concerned, or notice that your dog's symptoms are worsening.

What should I do when my dog has diarrhea?

The best way to treat your dog's diarrhea depends on several factors. The recommended course of treatment depends on the cause, length, and severity of your dog's symptoms.

"Most uncomplicated cases of mild GI upset occur when your dog eats something unusual. If this is the case, symptoms usually improve on their own after 24-48 hours," explains Dr. Myers. "If you have an adult dog that is otherwise healthy and experiencing no other symptoms, you may opt to wait for a couple of days to see if the diarrhea runs its course. If the diarrhea worsens or doesn't resolve after 24-48 hours, you should contact your vet for advice."

Diarrhea can present itself as a standalone symptom or in conjunction with others. Contact your vet if your dog's diarrhea is accompanied by other symptoms such as:

When it comes to your dog's health, it's better to be safe than sorry. A vet can assess your dog's symptoms and provide personalized advice. They may recommend that you:

  • Withhold food for 12-24 hours
  • Provide small, frequent meals
  • Keep water available
  • Feed your dog a bland diet.
  • Provide probiotics to restore your dog's microbial balance

To reduce the likelihood of making your dog sick, consult your vet before changing your dog's dietary habits. A virtual vet appointment is a great way to get personalized nutrition advice whenever and wherever you need it.

What are the best foods for dogs with diarrhea?

Temporarily changing your dog's diet is one example of how diarrhea is treated, but it could make your dog worse. Talk to a vet to determine the best course of action.

Most cases of dog diarrhea respond well to a change in dietary fiber. In many cases of mild diarrhea, a low-fiber, bland diet will help to fix the problem. If your vet determines that this type of diet is the best solution, they may recommend that your dog eats low-fiber, bland meals such as:

  • Lean proteins, like plain, boiled turkey or chicken breast
  • Boiled white rice (not brown rice, as this is harder for dogs to digest)
  • Boiled fish (cod, haddock, flounder, salmon, or tilapia)
  • Other low-fiber, bland foods

Conversely, some cases of diarrhea are treated more effectively by foods with a high fiber content. In this case, your vet may recommend foods with significant soluble fiber, such as:

  • Canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling, as this typically contains sugar and other additives)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Other foods with a high source of fiber

Your veterinarian may also recommend a probiotic supplement to restore the balance of beneficial bacteria in your dog's gut. Once the diarrhea resolves and your dog returns to normal bowel movements, your vet will support you as you gradually reintroduce your canine to its regular diet.

Remember, as long as your dog isn't vomiting, it's key to provide your pet with plenty of water to help them replenish lost fluids. If your dog is experiencing other symptoms like vomiting, contact your vet for advice.

When should I contact a vet about my dog's diarrhea?

There's never a wrong time to contact your vet about your dog's diarrhea. Your vet is there to support you and your pet. Contact them if you're worried, need a diagnosis, or want more information about how best to treat your dog.

If your adult dog is experiencing mild diarrhea and is otherwise healthy with no other symptoms, you may choose to wait for one to two days to see if the diarrhea improves on its own. You should always contact a vet for diarrhea if:

  • You have a senior dog or puppy
  • Your dog has a history of chronic diarrhea
  • Your dog has pre-existing medical issues or health concerns

In addition, for healthy adult dogs, you should reach out to your vet if:

  • Diarrhea is severe or very bloody
  • Diarrhea doesn't resolve after 24-48 hours
  • Other symptoms accompany your dog's diarrhea
  • Your dog's condition worsens

Your vet will assess your dog's symptoms and recommend next steps. If your dog's condition doesn't improve with time and symptomatic treatment, your vet may perform one or more tests to learn more about your dog's diarrhea.

Some examples of diagnostic tools for assessing diarrhea in dogs include:

  • Fecal analysis
  • Blood tests
  • Dietary assessment
  • Ultrasound
  • Parvo test (especially for unvaccinated puppies)
  • Giardia test

Your vet will assess your dog's condition to decide whether a test is required. If they determine a test is necessary, they will choose the diagnostic method best suited to your dog's symptoms and medical history. Many cases of mild diarrhea don't require a test, and your vet usually only needs to perform one if your dog's condition doesn't improve over time in response to symptomatic treatment.

The most convenient way to get a hassle-free assessment of your pet's diarrhea is to schedule an online virtual care appointment. Vetster can provide you with a comprehensive evaluation and actionable recommendations from the comfort of your home. There's no need to guess when it comes to your dog's health. Stay in the know with 24/7 support from Vetster.

FAQ: Managing dog diarrhea: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Can I give my dog loperamide (Imodium®)?

It's essential to consult with your vet before providing loperamide for diarrhea in dogs. Treating diarrhea with medication without a vet's guidance could aggravate underlying health issues and cause potential side effects.

When you contact your vet, they will assess your dog's medical history and ask whether they are currently on medication for other medical conditions. At this point, they will decide if Imodium® is suitable for your dog and advise you on how to proceed.

What are the symptoms of parasites in dogs?

Under most circumstances, parasites don’t cause any symptoms at all. Parasites sometimes appear as visible worms in the feces, and they may occasionally cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, appetite changes, lethargy, and coughing. If you notice worms in your dog's stools, the best course of action is to schedule an appointment with your vet for further advice.

How long does dog diarrhea last?

If your pet has a mild, uncomplicated bout of diarrhea from eating something unusual, you can usually expect things to run their course in 24-48 hours. This timeframe can vary depending on the severity and cause of your dog's digestive upset. If your otherwise healthy dog's diarrhea worsens, doesn't resolve after 24-48 hours, or you'd like more information, contact your vet for advice.

How long should I wait before contacting a vet about my dog's diarrhea?

Your dog may not require treatment for diarrhea, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Seeking veterinary care sooner rather than later may help your dog's condition improve faster. Preventative measures also help keep bouts of diarrhea mild and infrequent. With this in mind, you should always contact your vet immediately if:

  • Your dog is otherwise healthy, but their diarrhea lasts longer than 24-48 hours
  • Your dog is very young or very old
  • Other symptoms accompany the diarrhea
  • The diarrhea is getting worse
  • Your dog has chronic illnesses (such as diabetes)