Diarrhea Do’s and Don’ts for Pets

By Dr. Laura Hady

Pet diarrhea is one of the most common reasons people take their pets to veterinary clinics. Acute diarrhea can be caused by a rapid food change, bacterial overgrowth in the normal gastrointestinal flora, parasites, viruses, dietary indiscretion (garbage gut), or by an inflamed pancreas (pancreatitis). Chronic diarrhea can be caused by the same things as acute diarrhea, but also may stem from liver, kidney, or heart disease, an underactive pancreas, cancer, food allergies, or an overactive immune system. Other causes of diarrhea include gastrointestinal ulceration, reaction to medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and plant fertilizers.

Here are some tips to help your veterinarian obtain a better diagnosis and a faster recovery for your pet.

  • Do collect a fresh sample and take it to your veterinarian for analysis. A sample is considered when fresh when less than four hours old. If you can’t get the sample into the clinic right away, put it in the refrigerator. To collect the sample, turn a plastic baggie inside out and place your hand inside to use it as a glove. Then fold it right side back after grabbing the material. This enables you to close the bag easily without making a mess.

Fecal analysis can reveal bacterial overgrowth; worm eggs, such as roundworms or whipworms; and parasites, such as Giardia and Coccidia. Your veterinarian may also request a recheck fecal sample after your pet has finished a specific medication.

If the diarrhea has an infectious cause, it is always best to immediately clean the stool out of the yard or the litterbox so that other animals don’t become infected. Parvo can cause life-threatening vomiting and diarrhea in puppies and can also be tested by a fecal or saliva swab.

  • Do give a complete history. Let the veterinary staff know how often the diarrhea is happening as well as its color and consistency (pudding-like, dark, green, orange, watery, etc.). Additional information should include whether the diarrhea is associated with vomit; if there has been a rapid change in diet/treats; a list of medications (prescribed or over-the-counter); whether your pet has raided the litter box or garbage; travel history (including camping); and whether there has been a stressful event associated with the diarrhea, such as the owner leaving or recent thunderstorms. Decreasing anxiety can be part of the treatment for stress colitis in our pets. In fact, we now use the term “gut-brain-axis” to indicate the complex relationship of the gastrointestinal tract with hormones and emotions.
  • Don’t give over-the-counter human medications such as Pepto-Bismol. It contains salicylic acid, which is a component of aspirin and may upset the gastrointestinal tract even more. Loperamide, which is the key ingredient in over-the-counter human diarrheal products, may not work at all in pets. Your pet’s body may be attempting to get rid of the offending contaminant or infectious agent, and loperamide may be increasing the absorption. Some breeds of dogs (mainly herding breeds) with the multidrug resistant 1 gene may not be able to process the loperamide, and it can be toxic to them.

If your pet routinely takes NSAIDs, be sure to stop administering them until two days after the diarrhea has resolved.

  • Do think about diet. Low-fat, bland foods containing boiled chicken and white rice have historically been the mainstay for treating diarrhea. Recent research has found that soluble and insoluble fiber may be better in resolving large bowel diarrhea than bland food alone. So, along with that boiled chicken, consider serving some canned pumpkin, brown rice or even Metamucil (1 teaspoon twice a day for a 50-pound dog). Hill’s Science Diet and Royal Canin offer a weight reduction formula with increased fiber that comes in a palatable canned and dry formulation.

Food allergies are best diagnosed with a limited diet that contains a protein and carbohydrate source such as venison and potato. Pets must be on these diets as the sole food source for at least eight weeks before food ingredients are added back into the diet to see if the diarrhea returns. Newer prescription diets have hydrolyzed (processed) proteins that are so tiny, the body does not recognize them as “foreign”. Talk with your veterinarian about which diet is best for your pet.

Finally, remember that additional testing like bloodwork, hormone analysis, radiographs, ultrasound, and intestinal biopsies may be needed to get a more definitive cause of your pet’s diarrhea. Newer research and treatment for diarrhea has been aimed at feeding and re-establishing the microbiome for pets. A pet’s microbiome is a well-balanced ecosystem that includes the proper type and amounts of bacteria, viruses, and yeast to effectively support digestion. In just a few years, specific microbiome diets could resolve more types of diarrheas than traditional medication.

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