By Carol McCarthy
Dog parents probably know more about their pet’s bathroom habits than they would care to, and because of that, are attuned to any changes that could signal illness, including constipation.
Find more about what causes constipation in dogs, and when it is a sign of something more serious, below.
How Often Do Healthy Dogs Poop?
How often a dog defecates can be influenced by a number of factors, said Dr. Brett Levitzke, medical director and emergency/critical care clinician at the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group in Brooklyn, New York. Healthy dogs typically go to the bathroom after eating a meal because the stomach is wired to the colon with nerves that trigger the gastro-colic reflex, he said. So when a dog’s stomach fills, the colon goes to work.
This means that how often “normal” dogs should defecate can vary, said Dr. Orla Mahony, clinical assistant professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts. However, she said, the majority of dogs poop one to three times a day. She added that the definition of true constipation, which is uncommon in dogs, is decreased frequency or difficulty pooping and the passing of hard, dry feces.
What are the Symptoms of Constipation in Dogs?
Signs and symptoms of constipation include straining, crying while attempting to defecate, passing small fecal balls and passing excessively firm or dry stool, Levitzke said, adding that if constipation is severe, your dog might show signs of nausea or pain.
You might also notice your dog dragging or scooting their bums along the ground, or licking their rear end, Mahony said. And if the cause is neurological, your dog might have a droopy tail and weakness or pain in their hindquarters, she said.
“For the majority of clients, they think of constipation when a dog struggles to poop. This is not necessarily the same thing,” Mahony said, adding that colitis — or spasms of the colon with little to no stool passed or soft stools containing mucus or blood—can cause straining and pain in dogs and requires veterinary attention.
Another cause of straining can be urinary tract or prostate problems. Mahony said a physical exam by your veterinarian can help distinguish if your dog is constipated or if the problem is difficulty urinating, because he might assume the same posture when straining.
What are the Causes of Constipation in Dogs?
Decreased water intake, dietary changes and diets with indigestible material, such as bone or hair, can cause constipation. Also, certain medications can cause your pet to be constipated, including antihistamines, diuretics and opioids, Levitzke said.
More serious conditions, such as an enlarged prostate, or cancer or infections in the prostate gland (more likely in nonneutered male dogs, Mahony said), anal gland abscesses and tumors, peri-anal hernias or enlarged abdominal lymph nodes can also cause straining and constipation, both experts said. Old pelvic fractures that narrow the pelvic opening are another possible cause, Mahoney said.
“Finally, any condition that causes your dog pain while posturing to defecate can cause constipation,” Levitzke added. “These include back pain from intervertebral disc disease, severe osteoarthritis of the hips and knees and any ligament tears in the knees.”
To diagnose constipation in dogs, your veterinarian will examine a stool sample, give your pet a physical exam and possibly do blood tests and X-rays. Your veterinarian will also determine if your dog has any problems around the anus or perineum, such as an abscess, Mahony said. As part of the exam, your veterinary will ask about your dog’s diet and appetite, which could be at the root of the problem.
When Does Constipation Become a Medical Emergency?
Constipation itself is usually not a critical emergency, but it is a sign that something is going on that requires attention, Mahony said. However, in rare cases, constipation can develop because of problems affecting other body systems, she said. For example, heart failure makes breathing difficult, and the strain of eliminating feces can be too much for a dog, who then tries to avoid pooping. This would be considered a medical emergency, she said.
If your dog has not pooped for a couple of days, he can be at risk of developing obstipation, or an inability to poop. “Eventually, that is going to cause a huge backup and the dog will stop eating and feel really unwell,” Mahony said. “He then has to be put under anesthesia to have a procedure to evacuate the colon.”
That backup of bodily waste in itself is a problem, Levitzke said, as it contains large amounts of bacteria and waste products from the body’s normal functions. “If constipation is left untreated, these bacteria and waste products can get taken up into the blood stream, causing sepsis, a serious condition which could lead to a long hospital stay, or in the worst case, death,” he said.
How is Constipation in Dogs Treated?
Treatment depends on the underlying problem. If your dog has an abscess, antibiotics would be prescribed, Mahony said. If your veterinarian believes diet is the cause, then he or she might recommend adding a bit of fiber in the form of one to three teaspoons of canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filler), bran or an over-the-counter stool softener to get things moving again, both experts said. Changing your dog’s food, or adding soft foods or more liquid to their diet can also help address a chronic issue, Mahony said.
A healthy diet is the best way to keep your dog regular. Consult your veterinarian about the best food for your dog, depending on his age, breed and overall health. And, as much as you might not want to, pay close attention to your dog’s stools and get him on a schedule so you can quickly recognize something abnormal, Mahony said. Any question of constipation or illness that lasts more than a day or so should prompt a call to your veterinarian.
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