A byproduct of my dog Twyla’s stay in the veterinary hospital last week was a bout of diarrhea. Loose, unformed stools are a common problem in pets and can have a number of causes. Diseases, getting into the garbage or toxic substances, eating too much and even stress can all result in a case of the runs.
In puppies and kittens, intestinal parasites such as roundworms are a common cause of diarrhea. Dogs are scavengers, always prepared to eat anything they find, even if it’s dead, decayed or poisonous. Cats are more discriminating, but they have their own issues. When they get diarrhea, it’s often because they have eaten too much or too quickly. In some cases, diarrhea is more serious: It’s a sign of illness, such as E. coli infections in kittens or lymphoma in older cats.
Other common causes of diarrhea include a sudden change in diet, food allergy, pancreatitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Viral diseases such as parvovirus in dogs or panleukopenia or feline leukemia virus in cats can cause severe diarrhea. Unsanitary conditions, such as those in overcrowded shelters or poorly maintained kennels or catteries, also put animals at risk.
How do you know whether a case of diarrhea warrants a visit to the veterinarian? If your pet has a good appetite, acts normally and has a lifestyle that is conducive to getting diarrhea, such as free access to the outdoors, it’s usually safe to wait two to three days to see if the problem resolves on its own.
A pet’s age is a factor in whether a vet visit is necessary. Puppies or kittens and older animals should be seen by the veterinarian because they are more prone to dehydration and may require subcutaneous fluids and anti-diarrheal medications. Young animals probably need to be dewormed.
Older animals may need diagnostic tests to rule out serious diseases such as intestinal cancer. Take the pet to the vet as well if diarrhea is accompanied by appetite loss, vomiting more than once or twice, or listlessness.
Other causes for concern are an increase in the volume or frequency of diarrhea; a change in the color of the stool, especially if it has large amounts of blood or is dark or tinged with black, indicating the presence of digested blood; or if the animal is straining, shows other signs of discomfort, or seems depressed.
If you’re not sure whether your pet should see the veterinarian, give the office a call and describe what’s happening. The history of the problem may determine whether it’s urgent.
How diarrhea is treated depends on the cause. Antibiotics or other antimicrobial drugs are prescribed for infectious forms of diarrhea. The veterinarian may recommend a hypoallergenic diet with novel ingredients such as kangaroo or fish if a food allergy is suspected. Some pets can’t tolerate a switch from dry to canned food, or vice versa. Going back to the type of food they’re used to usually solves the problem. Routine deworming can clear up the diarrhea caused by simple cases of intestinal parasites.
If you can attribute the diarrhea to wolfing down too much food or eating a new or rich food, it may help to withhold food for 12 to 24 hours. Then feed a highly digestible diet recommended by your veterinarian. Boiled hamburger or chicken with cooked white rice, cottage cheese or cooked oatmeal are the usual recommendations. Once the stool is back to normal, you can gradually reintroduce the pet’s normal food.
The stimulation of a dog show, the stress of a stay in the veterinary hospital or the fear of being chased by visiting children can all trigger diarrhea in a pet. This type of emotional diarrhea usually disappears when whatever is causing the stress goes away. Twyla dislikes change of any kind, so I think we can safely attribute her diarrhea to the stay in the hospital. It has improved since she has been back home.
When everything else has been ruled out, your pet may simply be eating too much. Cats and dogs have a short intestinal tract, and the colon can become overwhelmed if it has too much food to process. Measure out just enough food for a single meal instead of free-feeding.
Sometimes over-the-counter medications such as Pepto-Bismol or Kaopectate can help firm up a dog’s stool, but never give cats anti-diarrheal drugs intended for humans. Many of these medications contain substances that may be dangerous or toxic to your cat. Always consult your veterinarian before giving your cat or dog any medication, not only to make sure it’s safe but also to ensure that you give the correct amount.
An occasional bout of diarrhea in pets is not unusual and is usually no cause for concern, but persistent diarrhea is not normal and requires veterinary attention.