Pet Talk: Diarrhea and when to run to the vet

College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
Texas A&M University
Diarrhea is defined as loose, watery, and more frequent bowel movements and simply indicates that something is irritating the GI tract.

Diarrhea is a natural part of life—all pets (and pet owners) have had it at some point.

While diarrhea can be smelly, messy, and potentially embarrassing, Dr. Michael Hung, a small animal internal medicine resident at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, offers the run down on what causes it and when a pet owner should be worried.

Diarrhea is defined as loose, watery, and more frequent bowel movements and simply indicates that something is irritating the GI tract, according to Hung.

“It occurs when something either impairs the intestine’s ability to absorb water or causes the intestine to secrete more water,” he said. “This can be from a problem originating within the intestines—such as parasites, inflammatory bowel disease, a sudden change in diet, or even stress.”

When diarrhea is caused by something obvious—such as a pet getting into the garbage or eating too many table scraps, intestinal worms, or stress from a recent move—and the episode passes quickly, it can be considered normal and self-resolving.

“However, diarrhea can also reflect a more serious issue elsewhere in the body,” Hung warns.

More sinister causes may include infectious diseases, the ingestion of poisonous substances, and a variety of illnesses, such as kidney disease or even cancer.

“While there are serious causes for diarrhea, the majority of diarrhea cases are uncomplicated and do not require hospitalization,” Hung said.

If a pet has a sudden bout of diarrhea, there are some at-home measures that pet owners can take to help their loved ones.

Hung says that pet owners can make sure that plenty of water is available to their pets, although they should never force feed the water.

A bland and low-fat diet can also be offered for a short period of time. Examples include shredded, non-seasoned, fully cooked chicken breast or cottage cheese mixed with cooked, plain white rice.  Since this diet is not balanced, however, it should not be offered for more than a couple of days.

Pet owners also can try to prevent diarrhea by making sure their pets are on appropriate, thoroughly cooked, and balanced diets.

“Treats (including human food) should be kept to a minimum,” Hung said. “Any changes to diet should occur gradually over a couple of days. Pets should also be kept on a consistent parasite preventative regimen and vaccine schedule.”

Occasional diarrhea is unavoidable, and a pet may be able to overcome minor bouts on their own or with the help of their owners.

“Ultimately, the cure for diarrhea depends on its cause,” Hung said, adding that some pets may need to see a veterinarian for medical help.

“Any diarrhea that is profuse and watery, mostly bloody, or that lasts longer than seven to 14 days should be addressed by a veterinarian,” Hung advises. “Because diarrhea can be a warning sign of a systemic disease, if not addressed in a timely manner, these systemic diseases can progress and become harder to treat.”

Ongoing diarrhea can result in weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, and dehydration. Signs of dehydration, including lethargy, inappetence, unwillingness to drink, also indicate the need for veterinary attention.

“That said, if your pet has diarrhea but is eating and drinking and seems like themselves—don't panic! Although a pet with diarrhea in the house can certainly be stressful, it is not necessarily an emergency,” he said. “You can schedule an appointment with your family veterinarian, and they can help you decide what is needed for your pet.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.