By Dr. Becker
While the majority of dog owners have more experience with doggy diarrhea than constipation, pups do on occasion become constipated. Sometimes the problem is no more complicated than a lack of fiber in the diet or inadequate water consumption, but there can be more serious causes as well. The following is good advice from Dogtime.com:
"Please keep in mind that you should always consult your vet before making any changes to your dog's diet or administering medications (and also to be certain that he isn't exhibiting symptoms of a more serious illness or disorder)."
Note: My recommendations for constipation remedies can be found toward the end of the following comment, and differ from those listed in the Dogtime.com article.
Your dog is constipated when he either has difficulty pooping (and feces produced are dry and hard) or isn’t pooping at all. If solid waste stays in your dog’s colon too long, all the moisture in it will be absorbed and stools will become dry, hard, and difficult to pass.
If the situation is left untreated, your dog’s large intestine can actually stretch to the point where it can no longer do its job effectively. This is a chronic condition known as megacolon, and is actually more common in cats than dogs. Our goal is to prevent pets from ever having such chronic and longstanding bowel issues.
How Do I Know if My Dog is Constipated?
Whether you take your dog out to do his business or he goes out his doggy door into the backyard at will, it’s important to keep an eye on his elimination habits. The quantity of urine and feces, the color, texture, smell, and the presence of mucus or blood – are all indicators of how well your pet’s body is functioning.
Often, what leaves your dog’s body is the first sign of a problem with his health, so it’s important if you don’t accompany your dog out to potty that you regularly monitor the areas of your yard or property where he does his business. Constipation is insufficient or complete lack of passage of stool from the body. Most dogs with the problem will look like they’re trying to go – need to go – but don’t go.
If after several minutes of hunching and straining your pooch has produced either nothing or a small, hard something, you can safely assume he’s constipated. This is especially true if the problem lasts more than a day or two. You may notice your constipated dog appears bloated. He may be in some pain as well, especially during the act of trying unsuccessfully to poop.
If he’s able to pass stool, it may have an odd color – usually darker than normal. You may notice mucus or blood or other oddities you’ve never noticed before.
If the situation persists, your dog may have episodes of vomiting. He could lose his appetite and begin to drop weight. He may appear listless. Ideally the situation won’t get this far before action is taken. That’s why it’s important to regularly monitor not only what goes into your dog’s body, but also what comes out of it.
Causes of Constipation
There are many potential causes of constipation. They all fall into one of three categories as follows:
- Interluminal causes involve partial or complete obstruction on the inside of the colon, brought on by ingestion of matter than can’t be digested, as well as tumors.
- Extraluminal causes occur outside the colon and contribute to obstructive constipation, for example, a narrowed pelvis resulting from a pelvic fracture, or tumors growing in the pelvic cavity that compress the bowel from the outside.
- Intrinsic causes are neuromuscular in nature and can result from pelvic or lumbar nerve injury or diseases like hypothyroidism or hypercalcemia.
A partial list of causes includes:
Dehydration, not enough dietary fiber, lack of exercise
Swallowing a foreign object like a piece of cloth, part of a shoe, or rocks
Intestinal obstruction, including tumors
Neuromuscular disorders involving abnormalities or injury to the nerves or muscles of the colon
Infected anal glands or a hip or pelvic injury that causes pain during defecation
The effects of surgery, some medications, and iron supplements
Stress brought on by a change in routine or surroundings
One of the most frequent causes of constipation in dogs is dehydration. If you suspect your pup is constipated or you’ve noticed dry, hard stools when she’s able to go, it’s important to monitor her water intake. To calculate how much water your dog needs, click here. Remember, very active pets need more water, and in hot weather, every dog’s requirements increase.
Depending on what you feed your pet – especially if you feed raw or cooked food prepared at home, or a canned commercial formula -- she should be getting some of the moisture her body needs from her meals. If you feed dry kibble exclusively (which I don’t recommend unless you can’t afford to feed a more species-appropriate form of food), your dog will need to get most of her water from her water bowl.
If your dog ingests a non-food foreign object, which dogs are known to do, or even a big chunk of bone, it can lodge in his bowel and cause an obstruction around which stool cannot pass. If your dog is having trouble pooping and he’s been known to swallow things he shouldn’t, my advice is to contact your vet if the situation doesn’t resolve in a day or two.
If you know for a fact your pet has ingested something large that could create an obstruction, don’t delay as this can develop quickly into a very serious, even fatal, problem. Intact male dogs, especially as they age, can develop enlarged prostates which compress the bowel, creating pencil thin stools or even an obstruction. This problem can usually be resolved by having your pet neutered.
Hernias in your dog’s rectum in the area next to the anus can cause constipation. The hernia bulges into the rectum, closing off passage of stool. Hernias usually require surgery to repair.
Some dogs have insufficient muscle tone or neuromuscular disorders that impede their body’s ability to efficiently move waste through the colon. Stool that stays too long in the bowel loses moisture and hardens, making it even more difficult for the dog to go. This can become a vicious cycle, because the more difficult or painful it is to go, the more likely the dog is to develop a habit of avoiding elimination.
When to Worry …
If your normally healthy dog develops constipation that doesn’t resolve in a day or two, it’s smart to be concerned. There are potentially life-threatening causes of constipation in canines, so it’s important to keep a close eye on a constipated pet and seek medical help if things don’t improve quickly.
If your dog’s constipation resolves in a day or two but recurs, again, it’s time to see your veterinarian. A recurrence indicates the problem may be more complicated and require either medical intervention or permanent changes to your dog’s diet or lifestyle. Chronic constipation is known as obstipation. This is a very unfortunate situation in which a dog is unable to empty his bowels without outside help. The colon becomes enlarged as it retains a growing volume of hard stool.
A dog with obstipation will be extremely uncomfortable and try often but unsuccessfully to poop. Without intervention, he will lose his appetite, become lethargic and begin to vomit.
Depending on the severity of the situation, intervention can mean IV fluids for hydration and an enema to clear the colon -- or it can mean the dog must be fully anesthetized for a manual cleanout. Often, a second round is required to remove stool that was packed into inaccessible areas of the bowel during the first procedure.
In intractable cases, surgery may be necessary. A colectomy is an operation in which part of the bowel is removed and/or bowel abnormalities are corrected. This option is typically used in cases of obstipation caused by an injury to the colon, a neuromuscular disorder, tumors or pelvic disorders that impact the colon.
My Tips for Pups That Can’t Poop
These recommendations are intended for dogs that are experiencing a minor, transient bout of constipation. If your pet’s condition is ongoing or chronic, or if you aren’t sure of the cause, your best option is to call your vet for guidance.
A balanced, species-appropriate diet. Hands down, ‘dietary indiscretion’ is the most common cause of occasional canine constipation. And while indiscretions can include eating rocks, sticks, socks and kitty litter clumps, they can also include a dry, processed kibble diet full of junk your pup wasn’t designed by nature to eat. Feeding raw or preparing cooked meals yourself based on complete and balanced recipes is the best way to keep your dog’s whole body operating well – especially his digestion.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics. Both these supplements will help with maldigestion, which is often the cause of intermittent bouts of constipation as well as diarrhea. Your holistic vet can advise you on products and dosing, depending on your dog’s individual situation.
Plenty of exercise; plenty of clean, fresh drinking water. The bodies of all animals need to move to keep things moving, including stool through the colon. Regular physical activity and adequate amounts of fresh, clean drinking water can prevent or remedy doggy constipation.
Additional dietary fiber. In the wild, the fur on a dog’s prey provides fiber in his diet. Needless to say, domesticated dogs don’t get a lot of fur in their meals! Good sources of fiber for your canine companion include:
Organic apple cider vinegar (ACV).Organic ACV is a bit of a natural wonder drug, in that it can alleviate a wide variety of conditions in both people and pets. It is well known to improve digestion, including relieving constipation. I prefer raw, unfiltered ACV, 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight added to your dog’s food 1-2 times daily.
Aloe juice (not the topical gel): 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food.
Chiropractic, acupuncture/pressure and massage. All three of these natural modalities have been proven to help with chronic constipation in pets.
A Few Things I do NOT Recommend …
- Laxatives meant for humans. Please don’t give your dog any human laxative or stool softener without consulting your veterinarian. There are some human laxatives that may be safe and effective under certain circumstances, but please don’t guess at which ones or how much to give. Call your holistic vet for guidance. There are laxatives -- Lactulose is one -- formulated specifically for pets.
- High fiber grains meant for humans. Don’t attempt to resolve your dog’s constipation with grains, cereals or other high fiber people foods without consulting your holistic veterinarian first. Remember – your dog is a carnivore. Grains aren’t a natural part of her diet and could make a bad situation worse.
- Mineral oil. Please don’t give your pup mineral oil. It’s not effective, and it can be inhaled into the lungs, causing permanent damage.
- Home enemas. Please don’t attempt to give your pet an enema, or even a suppository, without consulting your veterinarian. Some commercially available enemas are highly toxic to pets.