Ah, diarrhea … the vilest bodily fluid known to animals. OK, so maybe swollen anal glands win out for sheer pungency, but diarrhea’s a close second, I think you’ll agree.

But first — if you’ll bear with me — a definition: diarrhea is the frequent passing of non-firm or liquid fecal material. But not all diarrhea is created equal.

Diarrhea comes in all shapes and sizes, often with a variety of accompanying symptoms. And frustratingly, it can be the result of one or more of dozens of disease processes. Everything from stress to cancer can cause it. Which is why you really need to submit to your veterinarian’s detailed (if disgusting) questioning on the matter.

For example:

  1. What’s the stool’s consistency? (more or less solid or watery)
  2. Is your pet straining when she passes stool? (strain: to assume the position and yet fail to produce stool)
  3. What color is it? Have you seen any blood in it? Mucus?
  4. What’s in his diet? What's his home life like? New events? New foods?
  5. How long has it been going on for? Is it intermittent or constant? Has it happened before? If so, how frequently?
  6. Does she appear to have control over her bowels?
  7. What other symptoms are you noticing? Belly gurgling, vomiting, lethargy, etcetera?
  8. Is he taking any medication?
  9. Are these large or small volumes of stool?
  10. How frequently is she leaving you "presents"?

All these questions may lead to many more, so be prepared. After the third degree, you’ll be granted a reprieve while Fluffy gets a physical, her stool checked under a microscope, her blood drawn, her urine sampled, and maybe some X-rays, too. An ultrasound and other advanced tests (barium studies, CT scans, endoscopy or colonoscopy, gastrointestinal function testing, etc.) may also be indicated based on the history, physical, and initial test results.

Only then can we get on to the treatments: dietary changes (with or without the use of specific therapeutic diets and/or nutritionist consultations), antibiotics, probiotics, prebiotics, parasite killers, immunosuppressive drugs (like steroids), changes in concurrent drug therapies, pancreatic enzyme supplementation, hormone supplementation, chemotherapy, radioactive iodide treatments, surgery, etc.

In case you haven't yet tallied it up, diarrhea can get one heck of a lot more expensive than your average diarrhea clean-up bill. But that’s not the worst part. The reason to truly dislike this disorder is what lies beneath:

The parasites, the bacterial overgrowths, the inflamed organs, the ulcers, the tumors, the immune system disorders, the dietary intolerances, the pancreatic insufficiencies, the hormonal diseases, the drug reactions, etc.

These disorders represent the real reason diarrhea is not your friend. Luckily, it’s almost always resolved with a minimum of stress or strife. But not always. That’s when you know you’ve made a real enemy of it.

In these latter cases, I almost always recommend consulting with a specialist skilled in internal medicine. Because sometimes there’s nothing we lowly GPs can do in the absence of these higher powers.

No, diarrhea will never be your friend, but you can almost always coerce it into submission. Sometimes it just takes a little more work than you might expect.


Dr. Patty Khuly