Recognizing the Red Flags of Dog Diarrhea

Diarrhea may be a symptom of intestinal parasites. By: alecale35

How often does your dog get tummy upsets?

Notice the question is “How often?” rather than “Does your pet get tummy upsets?” Why? Because diarrhea is a common problem.

So how do you know when your dog needs to see the vet or their tummy can be managed at home? And if you don’t feel the dog is sick as such, what’s the best way to settle the upset?

Cause and Effect

Even the cutest furbaby can have a penchant for cat poop (or worse!) or are sidewalk snackers when the opportunity arises. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that eating a 5-day-old burger is going to end, er, explosively.

Likewise, that nose-down, sniff-along attitude means the dog is in constant contact with the ground. Just as we can pick up flu from touching objects coated in flu virus, dogs can pick up stomach bugs ranging from nasty viruses to bacterial infections — or even parasites.

Then there are the dogs for whom diarrhea is a symptom of a wider problem. It might be they have liver disease, pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease, all of which can develop diarrhea as a complication.

Red Flags

Be aware this article is for general interest only and not intended to replace 1-to-1, hands-on veterinary attention. If you are worried about your dog, trust your instinct and always seek vet advice, regardless of the circumstances.

However, there are some red flag signs that should not be ignored, which mean it’s crucial the dog visits the vet. These include:

  • Blood: Bloody diarrhea can make a dog very ill very quickly, so please seek urgent attention.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea: The double whammy of fluid loss from both ends quickly leads to dehydration.
  • Restlessness or pain: No one wants their pet in pain.
  • Abdominal stretches: When the dog adopts a “praying” stance, with their butt in the air to stretch their tummy, this can be a sign of pancreatitis. Best get this checked out.
  • Not drinking: The risk here is dehydration, if the dog is losing fluid in the diarrhea but not replacing it.
  • Unwell or lethargy: It might be the diarrhea is a symptom of a more significant problem that needs sorting out.
  • Diarrhea lasting more than 48 hours: The longer the diarrhea persists, the less likely it is to settle without treatment, as the balance of bugs inside the bowel is thrown out of whack.

Managing Uncomplicated Diarrhea at Home

OK, so your dog has a history of scavenging, and they raided the garbage yesterday. Today, they have diarrhea but are still asking for breakfast. What should you do?

First, check the diarrhea for signs of blood. All clear? Good.

Now, are they bright and well, not vomiting, and asking for food? Good. If you aren’t unduly concerned for their overall health, here’s what you should do.

Monitor your dog for signs of lethargy. By: Free-Photos

Starve the Dog

Yep, that’s right. Withhold food for 18–24 hours.

This allows the gut to purge itself without adding “ammunition.” It also rests the bowel, allowing it to heal itself. Of course, during this time, allow free access to water so the dog doesn’t become dehydrated.

The purpose of starvation is twofold:

  1. Food causes muscular contractions of the bowel, with the effect that it “feeds” the diarrhea. When you withhold food, those muscular contractions ease and allow things to calm down.
  2. There’s evidence that feeding when the gut is inflamed is linked to the development of food allergies. Thus, if you offer Riffraff his regular food when his tummy is upset, there’s a small risk at a later date he’ll develop an allergy to one of the ingredients.

All being well, the dog “empties” and then doesn’t “go” for a while (their system is empty).

Reintroducing Food

The 2 rules for reintroducing food are:

  1. Little and often
  2. Bland food

Bland foods, such as white meats (chicken, white fish, turkey and rabbit), with an easy-to-digest carbohydrate (boiled potato, white rice or white pasta) are gentle on the gut, aiding its recovery.

Giving small meals regularly, such as 4–6 portions spread over the day, helps keep things low-key. Remember: The more the stomach is stretched (with a big meal), the greater the muscular contractions with the potential to rekindle diarrhea.

As a rule of thumb, feed the bland diet for 4–5 days. Once the dog has passed a couple of formed poops (albeit small ones because the food is highly digestible), take several days to slowly reintroduce the regular food.

Helpful Suggestions

So far, I haven’t mentioned pumpkin. This is wonderful stuff that can ease constipation and firm up soft stools. This is down to the soluble fiber content, which helps regulate the gut and reset it to normal. If you feel inclined, it’s fine to add a little pumpkin to the pet’s food and give nature a helping hand.

The other “goodies” that can help reset the bowel are probiotics. When dogs have diarrhea, they lose some of the helpful bacteria that are necessary for digestion. Indeed, prolonged diarrhea results in a swing the other way, where harmful bacteria get the upper hand and keep the diarrhea going.

Feeding a good doggie probiotic (and yes, it does have to be a doggie formulation — your human probiotic yogurt drink isn’t going to help because we have different gut bacteria) once a day for 3–5 days can speed up recovery.

Here’s a great recipe for yummy pumpkin dog treats:

Be Alert for Deterioration

Watch carefully for signs the dog is getting worse. These include:

  • Repeated straining but nothing coming out
  • Blood in the diarrhea
  • The development of other symptoms, such as vomiting, lack of energy or coughing
  • General weakness
  • Not eating
  • No improvement after 2 days

If you notice these symptoms, visit the vet immediately.

Avoiding Diarrhea

You can also help your dog by cutting down on some of the risk factors for diarrhea, such as intestinal worms or infections against which there is a vaccine.

Regularly deworm your dog according to their individual risk. For example, if you have a hunting dog who regularly eats carcasses, then weekly or monthly deworming would not go amiss. However, a lapdog who lives mostly indoors should be fine with 3–4 times a year.

Keep up to date with your dog’s vaccinations, and if you are going on a vacation out of your usual area, speak to your vet about whether non-core vaccinations are advisable.

A sudden change of diet can also upset stomachs. If you want to change foods, take a few days to make the swap, gradually mixing in more of the new food and using less of the old.

Hopefully, you now feel more confident about how to handle those doggie tummy upsets. Whether your pet pal needs to see the vet or can be managed at home, here’s a big “Get well soon” from me.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Feb. 16, 2018.

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