Diarrhea, Canine & Feline

Diarrhea in Dogs and Cats

By Dr. Karen Burgess

Diarrhea, including loose stools, increased frequency of stools, or a watery stream of feces, is a symptom of an underlying problem – not a disease in itself – and should always be cause for concern. Infections (viral, bacterial, parasitic), toxins, inflammation, or disease of the intestinal tract can all lead to diarrhea. Although mild cases of diarrhea may resolve without intervention, diarrhea accompanied by vomiting, lethargy or any other behavioral changes should be treated as a medical emergency.

One of the most common causes of diarrhea is intestinal upset from a sudden change in diet, giving an unfamiliar treat, or feeding table scraps. Diarrhea caused by food changes can often be resolved at home as long as it is not severe and the pet continues to act and feel normally. Withholding food for 24 hours (while continuing to encourage water consumption) allows the digestive system to heal. After 24 hours small amounts of a bland diet such as white rice and chicken can be offered (see recipe/schedule below). After two days of normal stool appearance, regular food can be gradually reintroduced over several days. If diarrhea does not improve or gets worse, veterinary treatment is recommended.

In order to avoid intestinal upset due to a new food, all changes should take place over several days to allow for the digestive system to acclimate. For the first three days of a food switch, feed ¼ of the new diet and ¾ of the old food. If no issues develop, then feed half new food and half old food for another three days, then ¼ old food and ¾ new food for another three days. This slow transition will help to minimize intestinal upsets and decrease the chances of diarrhea.

Although many pets regularly receive table scraps, care must be taken to ensure that these human foods are not too rich for their system. Fatty foods in particular can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and may lead to pancreatitis (a potentially life threatening inflammation of the pancreas). It is also important to remember that pets should NEVER be given turkey, chicken, or rib bones as these can splinter into small pieces and puncture the stomach and intestines.

While the goal of diarrhea treatment is aimed at solving a specific underlying problem many times this is difficult to accomplish. Supportive or symptomatic care is often what ends up resolving the problem. If loose stools are present for less than 24 hours and there are no other signs of illness (normal energy level, eating and drinking normally), a conservative approach of “wait and see” may be appropriate. However, if there are any additional signs of distress, such as increasing amounts of diarrhea for any length of time or bloody stools, a visit to the veterinarian is required.

Upon visiting the veterinarian a full history will be obtained. When the diarrhea started, its frequency, volume, and consistency will be discussed. It is helpful to bring a fresh stool sample to the visit. After a comprehensive physical exam, the following tests may be performed:

  • Fecal examination – Testing for parasite infections or bacterial overgrowth
  • Blood work – Evaluation of a variety of body systems (ex. kidneys, liver, hydration, red and white blood cells) to give a reading of basic health
  • X-rays – Radiographs may be recommended to diagnose potential intestinal obstructions or ingested foreign bodies

Treatment of diarrhea may involve a bland diet, probiotics, deworming, or antibiotics. Severe cases may require hospitalization and intravenous therapy

Chronic diarrhea (lasting for three or more weeks), while less common, is also reason for a visit to your veterinarian. Often the stool may begin to firm up only to become soft and unformed again. It is also not uncommon to see mucous or even small amounts of blood. Chronic diarrhea can lead to poor digestion and absorption of nutrients, low energy levels, and poor quality hair coat.

Food allergies and intolerances are a common cause of mild chronic diarrhea. Similar to lactose intolerance in people, pets may have or develop allergies or sensitivities to a variety of ingredients in pet food leading to chronic inflammation in the intestinal tract. Pancreatic diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer are also causes of chronic diarrhea.

Whether chronic or acute, diarrhea is almost always a sign of an underlying medical condition that needs to be addressed. Because diarrhea in itself has the potential to be life threatening, any pet suffering from more than a short-term bout or showing signs of other medical problems should be seen by a veterinarian. In addition, because young animals are so susceptible to several potentially fatal viruses, the presence of diarrhea in any puppy or kitten should be treated as a medical emergency until proven otherwise.

Bland diet recipes
8 ounces cooked white rice (baby rice cereal for cats), 4 ounces single protein source (ex. boiled beef, boiled chicken, low fat cottage cheese). Can boil together, use lean meat, 1# food mixture daily for a 30# dog.