By John Gilpatrick
No one wants to deal with dog poop. Just look at how many inventions are out there to make this necessity more pleasant (or less unpleasant)—from bags to deodorizers, pickers, scoopers, and shovels, just to name a few.
There are hygienic reasons behind why owners pick up their pets’ bowel movements, but there are also solid medical reasons for why it’s a good idea to pay closer attention to poop than just making sure it is picked up.
“Dog owners are the best at discovering slight changes in their pet’s activity and health,” says Sandy Willis, a small animal internal medicine specialist. “Changes might indicate disease early enough that we might be able to quickly diagnose and begin treating a problem.”
There are a lot of signs in your dog’s stool that might indicate a short-term or more serious medical problem. Color, consistency, frequency and other changes may alert you to an issue before your dog shows any other symptoms. The best way to know is to spot the changes, and the only way you as an owner can note any change is by being familiar with how often your dog poops and what it looks like when he’s healthy.
Following are five skills you will master by paying attention to your dog’s poop.
Diarrhea is one of the most frequent clinical signs of gastrointestinal diseases, says Dr. Jan Suchodolski, associate professor and associate director for microbiome sciences for the Gastrointestinal Laboratory at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. These account for as much as ten percent of veterinary visits, and among the diseases that diarrhea is symptomatic of are acute gastroenteritis, colitis and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
Constipation is a fairly serious condition for dogs; it should be addressed by a vet as early as possible. Some common causes of constipation include a lack of exercise, dehydration, and eating foreign objects or difficult to digest foods (e.g., bones). Constipation can also be caused by pain (back, hip or knee), enlarged anal glands, and enlarged prostate in male dogs.
The easiest way to spot constipation is by making a note that your dog hasn’t been defecating as usual—which you will know by paying daily attention to the amount your dog relieves himself. If someone else walks your dog, ask them daily if your dog defecated and if it looked normal. Don’t worry about sounding weird, this is your pet’s health.
Other signs of constipation, Willis says, are when a dog is straining to defecate, and when the stool is hard. Stool that is lacking moisture can be indicative of constipation as well.
Different types of blood spotting or discoloration in your dog’s fecal matter can signal different conditions (of varying degrees and severity). “Dark, tar-like stool can indicate an upper gastrointestinal bleed,” says Willis. “Red blood and mucus can indicate colitis (i.e., inflammation of the colon or the lower portion of the intestine), while red streaks in stool can also indicate colonic or rectal bleeding, which can be due to neoplasia.
She also suggests that disease of the anal glands can also cause changes in the stool. This can manifest itself as a hemorrhage, but you also might not see any blood and instead can observe your dog dragging his hind end on the ground as a way of trying to relieve discomfort.
“Most episodes of acute onset diarrhea are typically self-limiting within a few days, as dietary indiscretions are a frequent cause,” says Suchodolski.
If you’re noticing diarrhea shortly after a change in the amount of your dog’s food intake, if your dog has switched foods or eaten something different than usual, it should resolve itself before long. If symptoms persist past 2 days, you’ll want to have your dog checked out.
Both Willis and Suchodolski say that ideally, owners should have their dogs’ stool samples checked out by a vet twice a year, and younger dogs might be well served by more frequent fecal exams.
If the exam did not show anything conclusive underlying your pet’s gastrointestinal problems, and if you’re still seeing symptoms like diarrhea, blood, or other abnormalities in the days or weeks after an examination, know that it’s not unheard of for an illness to take longer to develop.
Willis notes that even the best fecal exam doesn’t catch 100 percent of infections. For example, when you’re talking about possible worm infection, she says, “It can take several weeks from infection with a [gastrointestinal] parasite for the adults to mature and eggs to be excreted in the feces.”
If you are in doubt, or if symptoms persist, take your dog back to the vet for another fecal exam, or to another vet for a second opinion.
And if your dog isn’t pooping? Learn more about dog constipation and when it’s an emergency.