Dog Diarrhea — At-Home Treatment and When to See a Vet

A small dog about to poop, potty training with a roll of toilet paper.
A small dog about to poop, potty training with a roll of toilet paper. Photography ©cynoclub | Thinkstock.

As a practicing veterinarian, my goal is to help dog parents determine when they can safely treat “the runs” at home and when medical help is required. But before we dive into the depths of dog diarrhea, we need to determine what “normal doggie doo” looks like.

What is “normal dog poop?”

A dog on a couch getting in trouble by his human.
Is your dog’s poop normal? If it’s not, can you treat the issue at home or do you have to see a vet? Photography ©FelizRenaud | Thinkstock.

If you can’t pick it up and hold it in your hand, it’s too loose. Roughly speaking, healthy dogs should defecate about the same number of meals they’re fed each day. Excessive treating and in-between meal snacks can alter your dog’s poop schedule, initiating mushy stools. Most medium-sized dogs’ poop should be two to three pieces of about 1-inch wide, 3- to 4-inch long portions. Each segment should be well-formed, firm to the touch and moist.

The color of a dog’s feces is typically tied to diet and gut bacteria. Artificial colors, fillers and chemicals in the food can also alter the hue. In general, healthy dog poop should be light brown or tan to dark brown. Black, tarry, red, yellow or green are colors to contact your veterinarian about.

Your dog’s feces should smell like, well, feces. It shouldn’t overwhelm your nostrils or alarm bystanders. Some of the healthiest dogs I know — my own — have very little offensive odor (or excess gas, but that’s another story). I know you’re thinking, “That veterinarian doesn’t think his dog’s poop stinks!” — but it’s mostly true. I can usually detect if a guest slipped my pooches some unhealthy snacks or a cat bowl was tipped over by the foul odor the next morning. If your pet’s poop smell changes suddenly, it’s worth noting and closely observing for any other changes. Excess fat is often the culprit for seismic shifts in fecal smells.

What about blood in dog poop?

Blood in a dog’s stool doesn’t always look like blood. Fecal blood originating higher in the intestinal tract, especially the small intestine, will be black or brown and often appears as dark flecks, specks or coffee grounds. The blood turns dark due to digestion by enzymes secreted in the small intestine.

If the blood stems from the lower intestinal tract, especially the large intestine, distal colon or rectal region, it will most likely look like normal blood. Red or pink drops or smears are frequently discovered on top of the stool, sidewalks or grass.

Keep in mind that both constipation and diarrhea can cause blood in a dog’s stool. Bright red blood without either diarrhea or hard, dry stools generally indicates the problem is closer to the rectum and anus.

When to call your vet about dog diarrhea

In general, report any diarrhea or discolored stool to your veterinarian immediately. While most cases of diarrhea are relatively mild and self-limiting, there are serious dog diarrhea causes, too. Bacterial, viral and fungal infections, intestinal parasites and many diseases all have loose stool as their early warning sign.

In addition, severe, watery diarrhea can quickly lead to life-threatening dehydration, especially in young, old and small dogs. Dehydration is a major concern in cases of dog diarrhea because the feces rush through the large intestine, preventing normal water resorption. Failure to resorb water results in loose stools and risk of dehydration.

Dog diarrhea treatment at home

If your dog is otherwise healthy and behaving normally, ask your veterinarian if home therapy is OK. Here are my basic homecare instructions for mild dog diarrhea:

  • Withhold food — NOT water — for 12 consecutive hours.
  • After 12 hours, if the diarrhea has improved, and there is no vomiting, lethargy or other changes, offer a small amount of a bland diet consisting of equal parts cooked, ground turkey and sweet potato or canned pumpkin every two to four hours.
  • Consider adding ½ teaspoon slippery elm per 10 pounds of your dog’s weight with each meal. This is an excellent herbal remedy used safely for centuries.
  • If the diarrhea persists or returns, seek veterinary assistance immediately.

Many cases of diarrhea can be successfully treated at home with careful observation, a little preparation and plenty of patience. Always ask your vet for advice before treating any medical condition at home.

What are some dog diarrhea causes? Here’s how to prevent dog diarrhea in the first place

Your veterinarian will likely analyze a fecal sample, perform basic blood and urine tests and perhaps an abdominal X-ray or ultrasound to diagnosis any medical condition. After your vet clears your dog from a medical condition, consider the following:

  • Diet. Sudden changes in foods can upset your dog’s intestinal bacterial flora, resulting in loose stools. Discuss your pet’s current food and treat regimen to look for any problem ingredients. Changing the fat, fiber, protein and carbohydrate constituents can help many pets.
  • Probiotics. Many pets suffering from diarrhea may benefit from adding species-specific probiotics to the diet. Ask your vet for an appropriate recommendation.
  • Stress. Changes to routine, guests, travel or even weather can trigger loose stools. Evaluate if your dog has been more anxious or tense lately, and determine if there’s a connection to any digestive changes.
  • Medications. Many prescription medications can upset your canine’s tummy. Don’t overlook heartworm, flea and tick treatments. If your dog develops any problem with a prescription, alert your veterinarian and ask for alternatives.

Thumbnail: Photography ©cynoclub | Thinkstock.

Dr. Ernie Ward is an internationally recognized veterinarian known for his innovations in general small-animal practice, long-term medication monitoring, special needs of senior dogs and cats and pet obesity. He has authored three books and has been a frequent guest on numerous TV programs.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you

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  6. I have a 6 month old puppy who is usually very active and the other day I ran out of our normal dog food and my neighbor gave me I 9 dogs and only one the 6 months old have bee very sick running diarrhea and vomiting not very act like she was but not lethargic either just a little bit slow moving drinks water but doesn’t want to eat what should I do other than get a hugh vet bill I haven’t seen any blood and the dog food I got from my neighbor was blue the name brand blur and I usually give them retriever small but not as small as blue do you think it could be the dog food her vomit is clear and diarrhea is tan lite brown someone please help me I don’t have the money for a vet bill thanks

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