By Dr. Becker
Listen as Dr. Karen Becker discusses the common problem of diarrhea in pets.
Diarrhea seems like a weird topic for a video, but my guess is a lot of you will watch anyway!
For those of you with pets, it’s not a question of if you’ll be faced with a case of diarrhea – but when.
If you have a new puppy or kitten, you’ll want to know how to prepare. Those of you with adult dogs or cats are well aware that diarrhea is unavoidable. It’s going to happen.
Knowing what to expect ahead of time is important. And if your pet is in the midst of a bout of diarrhea, I want to give you some good information on how to manage it.
Causes of Pet Diarrhea
The reasons your dog or cat gets diarrhea are numerous and varied.
- Most often the cause is dietary indiscretion, which is a fancy term for when your pet eats something she shouldn’t, causing GI upset.
- A sudden change in diet can also cause diarrhea.
- Parasites can cause intermittent GI upset and loose stools.
- Food allergies are another common cause. We typically think of food allergy symptoms as involving excessive itching and scratching. But actually, what most vets call inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are food allergies. Both IBD and IBS have intermittent loose stools or diarrhea as a side effect.
- Ingestion of foreign bodies. If your kitty swallows a rubber band, though it may not block his intestinal tract, it can still cause quite a bit of diarrhea. Similarly, if your dog eats sticks or tree bark, diarrhea or intermittent loose stools can be the result.
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) and feline hyperthyroidism have diarrhea as a symptom.
- Stress. Stress-induced diarrhea occurs when peristalsis, which is the wave-like motion of the GI tract that moves food through the intestines, up-regulates due to secondary stress.
- Infection. Viral and bacterial infections in the GI tract can both cause diarrhea. These infections can range from mild to life threatening.
Symptoms of Diarrhea
It’s important to know that diarrhea symptoms can be quite diverse.
Frequency, urgency and loose, watery stools are the classic signs that your pet has diarrhea.
But, so is straining. Many of my Natural Pet clients bring their pets in for what they think is a problem with constipation. The symptoms they describe usually involve a bout of explosive, watery stool, after which their pet stays hunched over as if he still needs to go, but can’t.
What this looks like to some pet owners is constipation, but it’s really just another sign their dog or cat is having a bout of diarrhea. Diarrhea upsets the normal rhythmic contractions and sensations of the GI tract, causing your pet to feel the constant need to eliminate. Thus the longer episodes of hunching and straining.
If your indoor cat is having diarrhea, it’s easy to determine – just check the litter box. Outdoor cats and dogs can be a bit more difficult to diagnose, so if you see your dog or kitty hunched up outside, check around for loose, brown or watery stool. If you find it, your pet is more likely to have diarrhea than constipation.
Other symptoms that can go hand-in-hand with a case of diarrhea include:
- Loss of appetite
How to Know When It’s Serious
Usually a young, healthy animal will have one episode of loose stool or diarrhea, and it’s done. It’s self-limiting and over quickly. However, your pet has the potential to become debilitated and ill from chronic bouts of diarrhea.
Puppies and kittens, adult pets that are small in size and geriatric animals are at special risk of becoming dehydrated from even a single episode of diarrhea.
If your dog or cat seems fine and healthy after a bout of diarrhea, it’s safe to simply monitor him. If you notice any lethargy developing, or a fever or change in behavior, you should call your veterinarian.
If your pet seems fine but has recurrent episodes of diarrhea that don’t seem to be resolving, it’s also time to call the vet for a non-emergency appointment.
If your pet is passing blood in his stools or if you notice any weakness or other signs of debilitation along with diarrhea, it’s important to get your dog or cat to the vet quickly, if not immediately.
What to Feed a Pet with Diarrhea
If your dog or cat is otherwise healthy and her behavior is normal, my recommendation is to withhold food – not water – for 12 hours.
After 12 hours, begin a bland diet that is fat-free. I recommend cooked, ground turkey, and canned 100 percent pumpkin. If canned pumpkin isn’t available, you can use cooked sweet potato.
Many vets still believe in a bland diet of ground beef and rice. I don’t agree.
Even the leanest ground beef is too high in fat, and while rice is indeed bland and contains fiber, it’s a complex carbohydrate that tends to ferment. This can make your pet gassy, and rice often passes right through the GI tract, exiting with the next bout of loose stool in exactly the same condition it entered.
Pumpkin or sweet potato, on the other hand, is usually digestible even for pets suffering with diarrhea, so there’s some absorption of nutrients from the fiber source.
Mix the turkey and pumpkin 50/50 and feed it to your pet until the diarrhea resolves. If it doesn’t clear up in about three days on a bland diet, it’s time to check in with your veterinarian.
I also recommend you keep some slippery elm on hand. Slippery elm is a neutral fiber source that works really well to ease episodes of diarrhea. It’s like nature’s Pepto-Bismol – it reduces GI inflammation and acts as a non-irritating source of fiber to bulk the stool and slow its transit through the GI tract.
Give your cat or dog about a half a teaspoon for each ten pounds of body weight with every bland meal.
In addition to slippery elm, many pet owners have good luck with herbs such as peppermint or chamomile. These are especially helpful for the cramps and other unpleasant GI symptoms that come with diarrhea.
Homeopathic podophyllum is also a good remedy to keep on hand to help reduce some of the side effects associated with intermittent diarrhea.
If You Need to Visit the Vet …
If your pet’s diarrhea isn’t resolving or keeps returning, or there are other troubling symptoms along with the loose stools, I recommend you bring a fecal sample with you to your appointment.
It’s not a fun chore to collect a quarter-size bit of poop on, for example, a stiff piece of cardboard and slip it into a plastic baggie, but think how much less fun it will be for your poor pet if the vet has to manually extract a sample.
Your dog’s or cat’s backside is probably a bit tender and sore, so do him a favor and bring along a sample that’s already left his body. He’ll thank you for it.
Your vet will probably do some blood work to determine if there’s any infection present. He or she might give your pet fluids to help with dehydration and check his temperature.
A fecal check will also be done to see if there’s a bacterial or viral agent in the mix.
Preventing Diarrhea in Your Pet
If your pet is a puppy, chances are he’s getting into grass, mulch, sticks, rocks, dirt and who knows what else every time you take him outside. Close supervision of very young dogs is important.
If you have a kitten or even an adult cat that is obsessed with your houseplants, again, supervision is essential.
Young animals are very inquisitive about their environment, and they investigate with their mouths.
Your puppy or kitten is the best incentive ever for keeping a clean house! Pick up those paper clips from the floor, those bits of paper towel, and anything else at eye level with a curious pup or kitty. This includes food dropped on the floor, especially if you have a pet with a sensitive stomach.
It’s also important to keep pets of any age out of the garbage. And don’t let Fluffy lick leftovers from the dinner plates on the counter or the pots and pans on the stove.
A Word on Changes to Your Pet’s Diet
If your dog or cat has a strong, resilient GI tract, which is my hope, he should be able to eat different foods and not have diarrhea.
Just as your body is designed to eat different foods every day and not have diarrhea, so is your pet’s.
I feed my dogs a different food every day in 14 day cycles. Their stools are firm and well-formed because I’ve conditioned them to have strong and resilient GI tracts.
If you feed your dog or cat the same food day after day, month after month, year in and year out, then suddenly switch to a new diet, a case of diarrhea is just about guaranteed.
It’s not the fault of the different food -- it’s because your pet’s gut has been conditioned to be ‘monotone.’
If you want to feed your pet a different food, you have to make the transition very slowly – for example, ten percent new food and ninety percent old food for several weeks. Then move to 80-20, 70-30, 60-40 and so on. The process should be slow enough that no bowel changes occur.