Having to check after your pet has been to the toilet, is one of the less pleasant aspects of pet ownership, but it can help you identify when something’s wrong. If you find diarrhoea where your dog or cat goes to the toilet, or worse still, somewhere in your home if they’ve been “caught short”, then it’s something that requires your attention.

Diarrhoea is a common ailment in pets and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly as it can often be a sign of a variety underlying health issues. It’s therefore important to be aware of some of the main causes of diarrhoea in pets, what to do when it occurs, how to treat it, and ways to prevent it in the future.

What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is a condition in which faeces are discharged from the bowels frequently and in a liquid form. It is characterised by loose, watery stools. It can have a sudden onset, occur intermittently for a period of time, be short in duration, or last from weeks to months.

Usually, during the process of digestion, the majority food and water is absorbed as it travels through the small intestine. What’s not absorbed continues its journey to the colon where it’s processed, and results in dogs and cats having normal bowel movements. Diarrhoea occurs when the food travels too quickly through the intestines, which causes an excessively watery stool.

For dogs and cats, a single bout is usually not reason for concern, but if it lasts longer than a day, there is a risk that it can lead to dehydration. Persistent diarrhoea is also more likely to be indicative of an underlying health issue and therefore should be checked by a vet.

What are the symptoms?

In addition to loose stools or liquid, frequent stools is another common symptom of diarrhoea. Other things to look for that could be signs, include changes to stool volume, straining to go to the toilet (or an increased urgency to go), mucus or blood in the stool, or flatulence. Possible accompaniments to diarrhoea - some of which may be caused by it - include dehydration, decreased appetite, lethargy, weight loss, and fever.

Causes of diarrhoea in animals

Diarrhoea is common and is a condition for which vets see a lot of patients. It can be caused by almost anything, and it’s often due to something the animal has eaten that hasn’t agreed with it. On the more serious side, it can be caused by things ranging from poisoning and allergic reactions, to cancer. Some animals may experience it due to stress, anxiety, or excitement, all of which can have an impact on a pet’s stomach and gastrointestinal system. Other causes of diarrhoea include:

  • Intolerance to certain foods or a change in diet
  • Ingestion of spoiled food or rubbish
  • Contaminated drinking water
  • Ingestion of something foreign such as a plastic bag or a toy
  • Stress and environmental factors, such as changing homes
  • Contact with poisons substances or toxic plants
  • Medications – NSAIDs, antibiotics, painkillers, worming treatments and certain other medications can cause diarrhoea
  • Infections - bacterial or viral
  • Internal parasites, for example heartworm, giardia and coccidia
  • Inflammatory bowel disease or colitis (inflammation in the colon)
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Digestive tract tumours
  • Liver or kidney disease, or hypothyroidism (lack of sufficient thyroid hormone)

When should I take my pet to the vet?

Black diarrhoea, “melena”, can be a sign of internal bleeding. Melena refers to stools that appear black and tarry.  It occurs due to the presence of blood in the faeces and is typically caused by bleeding in the upper portion of the gastrointestinal tract. If your pet has black-looking stools, immediate veterinary assistance is required.

You should also take your pet to the vet if the diarrhoea continues for more than a day, or if you observe vomiting, lethargy, fever, decreased appetite or weight loss, or straining to go to the toilet. Other reasons you should take your pet to the vet include:

  • Your dog or cat is very young or old – diarrhoea can be an indicator of serious diseases in puppies and kittens
  • There is an existing underlying health problem that could increase vulnerability to the effects of dehydration
  • Your pet is in pain
  • The diarrhoea is explosive, profuse, or very frequent

Treating diarrhoea

Treatment for diarrhoea will of course vary depending on what’s causing it. Your vet will recommend treatment to alleviate the symptoms of diarrhoea, and will work on controlling any underlying conditions.

If you believe the reason for your pet’s diarrhoea is simply an upset stomach, then switching to a bland diet may help. Your vet can recommend a suitable prescription diet, or alternatively you can try home-made meals such as boiled chicken and plain rice.  Once symptoms have subsided, switching back to regular food gradually can be attempted.

All animals with diarrhea need to consume sufficient amounts of water to prevent dehydration. Keep your pets’ water bowls filled with fresh, clean water. For cats, consider adding an extra bowl containing diluted chicken or beef broth. Switching from kibble to wet food is another way to increase their water intake.

Veterinary care

If you take your pet to the vet they will be assessed for dehydration and examined for underlying illnesses. A stool sample may be taken to check for the presence of internal parasites, and blood tests conducted to identify a potential cause of the diarrhoea.

The diagnostic tests and the treatment recommended, will depend on duration and severity of the diarrhoea and your pet’s overall condition. Your vet may also prescribe medication to help alleviate symptoms such as nausea, excess gastric acid or gastrointestinal inflammation.

What can be done to prevent diarrhoea?

Even perfectly healthy animals will sometimes get diarrhoea, but there are some things you can do that may help to reduce the likelihood of it occurring:

  • If changing their diet, make the changes gradually by mixing it with current food
  • Ensure your pets don’t have access to garbage and spoiled food
  • When walking dogs, prevent them from eating anything off the street, or drinking from puddles. Do not allow them to eat plant material, or other dogs’ faeces either.
  • Minimise stress and unnecessary changes of home
  • Keep vaccinations up to date
  • Follow your vet’s recommendation for parasite treatments

We all know how nasty a bout of diarrhoea can be, how it can drain vitality, and also how confronting it can be facing the clean-up after an accident involving a missed litter tray or dash to the back yard that wasn’t quite fast enough. Keeping an eye on what’s going on “down there” with our pets and maintaining a disciplined routine with their diet and access to potential hazards, can go a long way in fighting the unpleasant - and potentially dangerous - battle of diarrhoea. If you have any questions or concerns about whether your pet should pay us a visit due to an occurrence of diarrhoea, or any other health care issues, please get in touch.