Pet Diarrhea: Sometimes an Emergency

By: John Unflat, DVM

TVMA Member
Austin, TX

Published August 2014

Veterinarians are often called by our clients for questions about their pet’s diarrhea. Questions are often: “What can we do at home to treat it?” and “Is it serious?” We like to know the pet’s signalment (i.e., age, breed and sex), and if the patient is eating and drinking regularly and otherwise normal. If your pet still wants to eat and drink water, is not vomiting and does not have any other risk factors, you can call for an appointment. If your pet has vomiting and diarrhea, you should see your veterinarian as soon as possible. This is especially urgent if the patient is depressed or if it is a small animal (under 15-20 lbs.), as they can dehydrate rapidly. You may need to consider seeking emergency care with your regular veterinarian or an urgent care facility. If you are uncertain, it is always best to call a veterinarian to ask.

What Causes Diarrhea?

Diarrhea can be caused by everything and by nothing. That means that a patient can get diarrhea for no apparent reason, or it can be from very specific reasons. Many times the patient ate something it should not have. We call this “garbage gut.” If symptoms and history are indicative, we may assume it got into something that went unnoticed by the owner. Often whatever the patient ingested creates an imbalance of the normal bacterial population of the gut, including some spore-forming Clostridium organisms, which make toxins that affect the gastrointestinal Of or relating to the stomach and the intestines. tract. If we suspect bacterial overgrowth, we may use antibiotics, probiotics or both to help correct the bacterial imbalance.

Treatment of Pet Diarrhea

Feeding bland, easy-to-digest food can also help. Foods like low-fat cottage cheese and rice can help, or one of the low-residue prescription diets (i/d by Hill’s Science Diet or EN by Purina) may be used. Other treatments that may be recommended by your veterinarian depending on the underlying cause and the duration of the diarrhea include activated charcoal capsules, added fiber to the diet, gastrointestinal protectants and acid reducers.

When it’s Time to See the Veterinarian

Because some causes of diarrhea can be life-threatening, it is important to consult with your veterinarian. Veterinarians can run tests and X-rays in their office to look for intestinal parasites or changes in bacterial population, parvovirus, foreign objects, infection, organ disease and common poisonings. Your pet may require diagnostics or treatment for problems secondary to the diarrhea, like dehydration and electrolyte loss.

Even if the patient is on a monthly heartworm preventative, the diarrhea could still be caused by parasites. Many parasites are more common in younger animals, but pets of any age can get giardia or coccidian infections. Some parasites are zoonotic, meaning they are contagious and potentially harmful to humans. Wash your hands and practice good hygiene when cleaning up after your pet. Puppies are also very susceptible to parvovirus and distemper virus. A puppy experiencing dark diarrhea and vomiting should be treated as an emergency. Note that the parvovirus enteritis has a foul odor from the digested blood in it.

Patients with frank blood (red blood) in the diarrhea may have some form of colitis. However, ingestion of a foreign body (toy, stick, rock, etc.) can also cause frank blood. If a patient has thick jelly- or jam-like diarrhea with or without red blood, it should be seen ASAP since it may be a disease that can cause fatal diarrhea called Hemorrhagic Gastroenteritis (HGE). HGE is very common in small breed dogs but can occur in dogs of any size. It has a rapid course but is treatable if caught promptly.

Sometimes a patient, usually a middle age or older pet, will get diarrhea secondary to a metabolic disease like diabetes mellitus or from liver disease or cancer. This is why the signalment is important, as well as the general history and knowing the diet and any recent changes experienced. It’s also important to know if the pet is on any medicine, including which heartworm or flea medications the pet is taking. Give your veterinarian all the information you can so that we can help you decide if your pet needs to be seen or not.

John Unflat, DVM is a graduate of Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Austin, Texas. Dr. Unflat does relief veterinary work in Austin, and also regularly practices at Barton Creek Animal Clinic and Companion Animal Hospital.