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Diarrhea In Dogs & Cats – When To Worry

Diarrhea In Dogs & Cats

Everyone with a dog or cat has dealt with it at one point. It’s never pretty.
It’s diarrhea.
Of course, I could write pages and pages on this topic.
Our focus here: when do you start to worry? There are many variables at play. The diarrhea could be a nuisance that clears up easily with medication (or on its own) in a day or so, or it could be life threatening! And to be clear, never ever limit access to water for an animal that has diarrhea!

Here’s how to decide if you need to skip work and go to the vet right away, or if you can simply call your vet and get advice on what to feed and give it a day or so.
How is he feeling? Wanting to go for a walk? Playing normally? Or lying around?
Most dogs and cats who eat [insert random gross object here] will have loose stool but be otherwise healthy. If they are otherwise 100% normal and this is the 18th time they’ve done this, I can often just get you some diarrhea meds without needing an appointment (if I have seen your pet recently), as well as talk different food options (ie-bland diets).

If your pet is laying around or lethargic, he needs to be seen by a doctor. Sometimes it’s something more serious, and the diarrhea is a symptom of a bigger disease. Other times they are just dehydrated, and a good dose of fluids makes them feel much much better. Either way, that all is done by your veterinarian.
Is he eating OK?
Not eating, along with diarrhea, can sometimes be part of a bigger underlying disease. Other times their tummy just hurts! If your pet never ever misses a meal and is now not eating – worry! If your pet is a grazer, or not a reliable eater, I don’t worry as much. Again, sometimes just rehydration and symptomatic treatment is all they need. If your pet is eating and drinking fine, just has trouble with the back end, I am much less worried.

Is he vomiting?
I’ll cover vomiting in a future article, but in general, vomiting more than once coupled with frequent diarrhea warrants prompt medical intervention.
Is the diarrhea bloody?
I never actually ask this, but it is the first thing people mention, and it freaks them out. And to be honest, it’s the detail I am least concerned about! A little bit of red blood with the stool doesn’t cause me to panic (file this in the “no biggy” category). This often happens when an animal is having diarrhea, straining, and a blood vessel in the anal area leaks, hence the blood.
The blood that scares me is the digested blood, which is the sign of a significant bleed high up in the digestive tract. This diarrhea looks like black tar, nothing like the red blood most people see.
Another kind of blood in the stool that causes me concern is when the stool comes out like raspberry jelly. That is a symptom of a very specific disease (called Hemorrhagic GastroEnteritis, or HGE), which is very treatable, but requires aggressive rehydration. Time to see your veterinarian!
Is your dog a puppy? Is your cat a kitten?
Small and/or young animal tend to dehydrate very quickly. Some of these pets just have a lot of intestinal parasites, and we need to offer medical support while the worms die and the intestines calm down. Other times is could be a life-threatening illness (ie-parvo). Diarrhea that develops suddenly in a puppy or kitten should always be addressed immediately!!!
How long has it been going on?
Most people can stand a day or two of cleaning up, and if your pet is making it outside or to the the litterbox each time, you might not know exactly how long it’s been happening. If it’s more than a couple days, even if they are acting 100% normal, often some medications are needed to help clear things up.
Is your carpet white? Is company coming?
Yes, I’ve had people tell me the diarrhea is an absolute emergency for these reasons – not that I blame them! Bummer is, all treatments take time, and no one has invented a “pet cork.”

Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian.  See more of her articles at her blog at

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