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Vet Advice: Treating Diarrhea in Dogs

How to handle the inevitable mess.

by Robert J. Silver, DVM
December 26, 2020
feeding black dog rice water to help relieve diarrhea
Video_StockOrg / Adobe Stock

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Ah, the dreaded diarrhea. No matter what you do as a pet parent, it’s pretty much unavoidable with dogs. That’s why diarrhea is probably the most common complaint received by veterinarians. It’s such an easy condition to identify (the smell, the texture, you get it). As a veterinarian, I see many patients with minor gastrointestinal problems who could be treated at home safely and effectively. At the same time, there are dogs whose problems, if not addressed early enough by a veterinary professional, suffer more than they need to. Find out the causes of diarrhea, when you should be worried and how to help your dog.

So, what causes diarrhea?

Diarrhea is not a disease; rather, it is a symptom of a dysfunction of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). In simple terms, diarrhea in dogs is caused by something that hinders the intestine’s ability to absorb or secrete water. When associated with bad food or food-borne pathogens, diarrhea serves to rapidly remove pathogens from the GIT before they have a chance to be absorbed and cause more damage.

Know that occasional diarrhea is to be expected in dogs. Mild bouts of diarrhea will often resolve within two to four days on their own or with simple home remedies (see below). Most of the time, diarrhea is caused by dietary indiscretion (eating too many treats, garbage, or table scraps) or stressful circumstances and is self-resolving. But other common causes of diarrhea in dogs may include allergies, viral infections, inflammatory bowel disease, ingestion of toxins, parasites, pancreatitis, colitis or other illnesses.

When to visit your veterinarian

If your pup is behaving normally and has experienced a single bout of diarrhea, it’s not usually a cause for concern. But if your dog experiences recurring or chronic diarrhea, is straining, or shows other symptoms, you should contact your vet right away. Warning signs that your dog’s diarrhea needs medical attention include:

  • Black, tarry stool, or stool with copious amounts of fresh blood (bright red)

  • Loss of appetite

  • Marked lethargy

  • Frequent vomiting

  • Signs of abdominal pain, avoidance response when the belly is touched

  • Bloating, groaning or panting rapidly

  • Lasts longer than 48 hours (Since it can rapidly weaken puppies and geriatrics, or dogs with chronic diseases, they may need veterinary attention sooner)

When it comes to diagnosing the cause of diarrhea, the color and consistency of your dog’s poop actually says a lot about their health. So, take note of the color and consistency of their stool and any other symptoms your dog is experiencing. This information will help your vet determine what’s going on with your pup and get them back to normal.

How to treat mild diarrhea in dogs

When your normally healthy dog has mild diarrhea and doesn’t meet any of the above criteria, it is best to start with a simple home remedy. To help your pup avoid dehydration, give your pup access to water and put your dog on a 24-hour rice-water fast (white rice balls that contain active probiotic cultures), then follow up with a bland diet based on white rice.

Making Rice Water

Fasting your dog allows their GIT to rest and recover from whatever irritation it has received. During the fast, make sure your dog has plenty of rice water to drink. (Rice water is the creamy liquid that results from boiling white rice in water.) It’s important to use a good quality white rice; “minute” rice does not work and brown rice has too much fiber in it, which does not help firm the stool because it speeds the transit of digested material through the colon.

To make rice water, boil one cup of white rice in four cups of water for 10 minutes or until the water turns creamy white. Keep the lid slightly uncovered. Strain the liquid and allow it to cool. You can serve the rice water to your dog as often as they will drink it. If they aren’t interested, mix a teaspoon of chicken baby food (or another flavor that your pet likes) in the rice water to increase palatability. (Hint: One cup of white rice makes a lot of rice water!)

Adding Probiotics

Probiotics are living bacterial cultures intended to assist the body’s naturally occurring gut flora in reestablishing themselves — they may also help speed recovery. These live microorganisms are found in yogurt and are also available from health food stores or your veterinarian as high-potency powdered acidophilus cultures, which are more effective than yogurt for diarrhea. Mix these cultures into the rice water that you are serving your pet during their fast.
As you reintroduce solids, continue to add probiotics to your pup’s food. Use at least two to 10 billion viable bacterial organisms in each meal you serve; to determine the level of “viable organisms” or “colony forming units” (CFUs) present in a probiotic such as acidophilus, look on the label — a reputable manufacturer will list that number.

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

Reintroduce Solids Slowly

Feeding your pup a home-cooked bland diet can be beneficial as you reintroduce solids. After the fast is over, start your dog back on a diet of white rice cooked with extra water and mixed with small amounts of baby food for protein and flavor. To make white rice, use two to three cups of water for each cup of dry rice.

Beyond rice, other simple foods that can help relieve your dog’s diarrhea include pumpkin, cottage cheese, peeled boiled potatoes and plain chicken breast. Remember, this bland diet is not balanced, so it should not be offered for more than a few days.

OTC medication

Your veterinarian may recommend the oral administration of an intestinal protectant such as kaolin clay and pectin (KaoPectate™) or a suspension containing bismuth subsalicylate (PeptoBismol™). The antidiarrheal loperamide (Imodium™) can be given if the diarrhea doesn’t resolve easily but administer for no more than five days. Always confirm the correct dose and best use of these medications with your veterinarian. There are several instances would you should not use these medications:

  • Caution is required when using over-the-counter medications in Collies, Shelties and Australian Shepherds due to a possible genetic mutation.

  • They are not recommended for puppies, seniors, or dogs with other health conditions such as liver or kidney disease.

  • While dogs can tolerate PeptoBismol or KaoPectate, these medications should never be given to cats, as they contain salicylates, which are potentially toxic for felines.

Dosages for the two intestinal protectants mentioned above are approximate (call your vet to confirm). Use the liquid medication, not the tablets, and give about 1 cc of liquid for every 10 pounds of body weight up to three times daily. The bismuth subsalicylate has more anti-inflammatory activity, so it may work better on patients with abdominal cramping.

If the diarrhea is severe, your veterinarian may want you to also give your dog some loperamide (Imodium AD™). This can help to reduce fluid loss until the rice-water fast, white rice and acidophilus, and the dog’s own healing system can overcome the diarrhea. The published dose for loperamide in dogs is 2 mg (the standard-size capsule) for every 40 to 45 pounds of body weight, two to three times daily (this translates into no more than 0.1 mg per pound).

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.

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Robert J. Silver, DVM

Robert Silver, DVM, founder of Boulder's Natural Animal: A Holistic Wellness Center, is also a certified veterinary acupuncturist. He received his DVM from Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1982.