By John Andersen, DVM
Last week while hiking at “Dog Heaven” (aka Sugar Hollow), my dog Ruby saw a huge mud puddle. It was really more like a small mud pond after all the rain we’ve had this summer. Naturally, she sprinted right into it and quickly turned herself a delightful shade of brown, all the while drinking large gulps of this terrible muddy water. “Ruby, noooooo!” I pleaded. But it was hopeless. “Oh well,” I thought as we moved on down the trail, “that’s probably not going to turn out well.”
Warning: If you’re eating breakfast as you read this, you may want to come back to it later as we are going to be talking about—diarrhea. If you’re a dog owner, you have surely had an unexpected present waiting for you at some point in your dog’s life. As a veterinarian, diarrhea in dogs is one of the most common problems I see.
Later that evening, Ruby seemed perfectly normal, so I fed her and eventually the Andersens went to bed. Then at 2 a.m., Ruby woke us up by panting and whining. Mud puddle! I got her outside and she immediately had some pretty bad, watery diarrhea. Fortunately, that was the last episode that night. However, first thing the next morning she was having more diarrhea.
This left me with a classic dog owner’s predicament. Your dog was up all night with diarrhea and now you’ve got to go to work all day. Do you leave your dog at home and pray you don’t come home to a disaster? Do you take your dog to the vet? Or have a friend or pet sitter check in?
I know Ruby and her reaction to dietary indiscretion pretty well, and so as her vet, I medicated her and went off to work. We had someone check in on her in the middle of the day and, fortunately, she was fine. Disaster averted. But we have not been so lucky with our other dog, Boone. We (and our dear pet sitter Laura) have had many instances of cleaning up a mess in his crate. Poor boy.
The intestinal tracts of dogs and cats are pretty much the same as ours. However, dogs have very “reactive” colons and when they are out of balance, bad things happen to your carpet. Colitis is a broad term that simply means “inflammation of the colon.” Colitis happens commonly in dogs for a variety of reasons: intestinal parasites, dietary indiscretion, stress, Giardia (an intestinal bug), abrupt diet change, or medications. These things can all change the balance of the billions of bacteria in the colon and when those bacteria get out of balance, colitis and diarrhea ensue. Classic signs of colitis are urgency (i.e. accidents in the house because they can’t hold it), frequency (having to go again and again), straining, and sometimes blood and mucus.
How do you know if it’s a big deal? Everyone has had diarrhea and most of the time we don’t go to the doctor. When do you take your dog to the vet for diarrhea and when is it okay to just wait and see?
Here are some guidelines:
If your dog is having diarrhea, but it’s mild, without much urgency or frequency, and he’s otherwise feeling totally normal, it’s okay to wait. But if you have to head off to a long day’s work, plan accordingly. Make sure someone can take him out at lunch and give you a report.
If your dog has diarrhea with urgency and frequency, but is otherwise appears to feel totally normal, it’s still okay to wait. However, once the diarrhea gets watery with urgency, dogs usually need some medicine. You should consider calling your vet, especially if it’s getting close to the weekend.
If your dog is having diarrhea with blood in it, call your vet. The vast majority of the time, blood in the stool is just a sign that colitis is present. It does not mean your dog is bleeding internally. However, once blood is present, the colon is usually pretty inflamed, and these dogs will usually need medication to get back to normal. I find that once dogs with colitis start having blood in their stool, it’s not too long before they start vomiting and stop eating and can quickly get dehydrated. These dogs usually need more supportive care, so your vet bill will generally be cheaper the sooner you bring them in.
If your dog is having diarrhea and is also feeling sick, not eating, or vomiting, you should call your vet. They could have something worse going on, like an obstruction or a bad infection.
A few more tips:
If your dog seems sick, be sure to look at every bowel movement until they are back to normal, even if that means going out at night with a flashlight. It is very common for people with fenced-in yards or country properties to not really know what their dog’s regular stool looks like. This is okay when there’s not a problem, but knowing what the consistency of their stool is like when they are sick is very important. If your dog is sick, you should be able to answer the following questions: Is she having diarrhea? Is there blood in it? Is it watery or just soft?
If your dog is straining to have a bowel movement, he is far more likely to be having diarrhea (colitis with straining) than to be constipated. Constipation is not a common problem in dogs. If you see your dog straining, get a close look to see if small amounts of soft stool are coming out, which would be diagnostic of colitis, and not constipation.
If your dog has chronic loose stool, discuss this with your vet. Most dogs being fed commercial dog foods should have solid stool that is easily picked up off of your neighbor’s grass.
Like many, my dogs will put just about anything in their mouths. Most of the time, incredibly, they are fine.