When is dog diarrhea an emergency?

Mar 24, 2022

A dog with diarrhea is never pleasant – for your pet or for you. As with ourselves, not all instances of diarrhea are dangerous. Sometimes, just a slight change of menu (like eating grass) or location can reflect itself in a bout of loose elimination or watery diarrhea. At times, however, diarrhea overlaps with other symptoms, indicating the need for medical help. Observe your pet carefully for the various signs of diarrhea in dogs and learn to recognize when diarrhea is signaling an emergency.

What can cause diarrhea in dogs?

The following conditions or behaviors can cause diarrhea in dogs including but not limited to:

  • Colitis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Intestinal cancer
  • Change in diet or treats
  • Ingesting some toxins or poisons
  • Eating certain human foods: be aware that many human foods are toxic to pets!
  • Eating cat litter, garbage or raw or spoiled food
  • Ingestion of foreign objects such as toys, bones and fabric
  • Medications such as antibiotics
  • Viral infections such as parvovirus or distemper parasites – roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, Coccidia or Giardia
  • Bacterial infections – such as Salmonella
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

Because many different factors can trigger an episode of diarrhea, it’s essential to observe your dog’s overall behavior, since subtle signs may hold clues that will help you and your vet correct the issue.  If your dog is having diarrhea, take note of vomiting, fever, unusual drooling, signs of cramping (such as constricting the lower body), loss of appetite and loss of interest in walks or play. All of these can signal a potentially serious medical problem in your dog. 

Breeds that are predisposed to gut sensitivity

Also note that specific breeds have an inherited tendency toward gut-sensitivity which may produce diarrhea. These breeds include Terriers, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Shih Tzus, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Boxers and Poodles. 

When is diarrhea in dogs serious?

There are a number of warning signs that dog parents should look out for including but not limited to:

Warning Sign 1: Bloody diarrhea or diarrhea with red or black blood

Blood may appear as bright red or as black tar-like streaks or clumps in your dog’s stool. Bloody stool can be a bit alarming and can indicate internal bleeding, so it always requires an immediate veterinary visit.  If you are unsure of whether you are seeing blood in your dog’s stool, contact Airvet as a first step. Vomiting blood and blood in diarrhea frequently occur together, so take these signs as a double warning that your dog needs immediate medical attention.

Warning Sign 2: Frequency and duration of diarrhea

More than two episodes of diarrhea in 24 hours or less signal the potential for serious trouble. Interpret repeated episodes as your cue to seek prompt medical help for your pet.

Warning Sign 3: Your dog can’t keep water or food down without vomiting

The inability to keep water or food down suggests a potentially complex condition that requires immediate medical attention. Keep in mind that regurgitation, vomiting and diarrhea can quickly deplete your dog’s body of its essential fluids, nutrition and electrolytes. This can result in exhaustion, rapid weight loss, weakness and dehydration.

Warning Sign 4: Straining to “go” is also a warning sign

If your dog is straining to pass a stool but is only able to produce a thin, watery substance, or nothing at all, this could indicate a blockage (perhaps caused by swallowing a non-food item such as a toy, plastic part, or metal object like a key or coin). If this is the case, your dog needs immediate medical help. If your dog is unable to produce a normal stool within a few hours, seek immediate care.

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When is diarrhea particularly dangerous?

Diarrhea can be particularly dangerous if your dog is very young (a puppy), very old (a senior dog) or immunocompromised. 

Parvovirus (Parvo) in puppies

When a puppy experiences diarrhea and/or vomiting, it may signal the presence of the highly contagious, and potentially deadly, canine parvovirus.  Parvovirus is most often caught through exposure to parvo-infected feces from other dogs or wildlife. The virus lingers on animal feed, water-bowls, leashes and collars of infected dogs, as well as on the hands and clothing of people who handle these dogs. It can remain in the soil for 6 months or more, and there is nothing that can safely remove it outdoors. 

Puppies aged six weeks to six months are most susceptible to parvovirus (younger puppies are usually protected by their mother’s antibodies if the mother dog received her full series of parvo vaccinations). Puppies need the parvo vaccination series administered by a veterinarian beginning at 6 to 8 weeks of age, and repeated every 3-4 weeks until they are at least 14 to 16 weeks of age. The vaccine should then be repeated in adult dogs and boostered according to your veterinarian’s recommendations.

Diarrhea in senior dogs

Senior dogs are often prescribed a variety of medications due to age-related problems and sometimes digestive distress may result. Some of these medications include NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, for pain and stiffness), antibiotics and heart medicines.

As always, let your veterinarian know of any side effects your dog is experiencing from the medications they prescribe. If you’re unsure about what you’re seeing with your dog, talk with Airvet about the prescriptions your dog takes, and discuss whether or not these medications in combination may be causing your dog’s diarrhea.

Some conditions in senior canines which may result in diarrhea include:

  • Developing a food intolerance
  • Addison’s disease, which is a decline in the adrenal gland function 
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough digestive enzymes to effectively break down food
  • Pancreatitis

Immunocompromised dogs

Dogs with compromised immune systems may experience diarrhea more often than healthy dogs. When dogs develop some types of cancer, they must be given immune system suppressing drugs as part of their treatment.

Lymphoma in dogs

Lymphoma is among the most common  neoplastic conditions in dogs and sometimes produces diarrhea, vomiting and bloody stool. If your dog has been diagnosed with this condition and develops diarrhea, see your vet immediately.

How to know what’s causing your dog’s diarrhea

Visit your veterinarian to get to the bottom of the issue. Be sure to collect a sample of your dog’s feces in a small clean container to bring to your vet (an unused ziploc bag or disposable plastic container works well). Make sure the feces is less than 12 hours old and has not been frozen. Depending upon your pet’s medical history and current symptoms, your vet may choose a variety of diagnostics to rule possible causes in or out including but not limited to:

  • Fecal tests for parasites and parvovirus
  • Blood tests to check for protein loss, anemia and organ function
  • SNAP cpL blood test for pancreatitis
  • X-rays or ultrasound of the abdomen to help determine whether the dog has eaten any foreign objects. Sometimes cancer and intestinal abnormalities can also be detected by X-ray or ultrasound
  • Endoscopy using a scope inserted through the mouth with a camera to examine the stomach and sometimes a portion of the intestines. Sometimes a colonoscopy is performed with a similar scope and intestinal biopsies can be obtained. Rectal exams are used to look for tumors in the anal area

Treatment options for dog diarrhea

The treatment your veterinarian recommends will be based on the final diagnosis. If warranted, medications may be indicated and can include:

  • Antibiotics with anti-inflammatory properties are commonly used to treat dog diarrhea and when bacterial overgrowth is present
  • Probiotics are prescribed to increase the “good” bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that consume fiber and then produce fatty acids, which help the intestine function effectively
  • Diarrhea caused by cancer may be treated using chemotherapeutic drugs and a consultation with a veterinary oncologist may be recommended
  • Depending on your dog’s age and condition, other medications may be prescribed
  • Dewormers are used when evidence of parasites is found, but also may be given prophylactically
  • Prescription diets might be recommended for a short or long time for your dog. Some prescription diets are very easily digestible and are used to allow for healing of the GI tract for a week or less. Others are made for dogs with food sensitivities and allergies and are used long-term. 

Dog diarrhea can be frustrating for you and your dog, but with the proper diagnostics and your careful observations of your pet, you and your vet can get to the root cause and draw up a plan of action to make your dog feel better! 

Concerned about your dog’s diarrhea? Download the Airvet app now. Talk to a licensed vet today.