What Your Dog's Poo Can Tell You About Their Health
Though it may not be your favorite topic to think about or discuss, your dog’s poop can actually provide some good clues about their health. Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that, like the eyes are the windows to the soul, poop is the window to overall health … but it definitely can provide a glimpse! So here’s the skinny on why you should go outside with your dog when they go to the bathroom and generally pay attention to your dog’s poops. They could be trying to tell you something.
Dog Poo 'Ground Rules'
The poop and pooping characteristics outlined below are a general guide. What’s also very important is a “change in normal” for your specific dog. For example, if your dog normally has slightly “soft” stools and is doing well, then all of a sudden develops firm, dryer stools … that could be an indication of a problem. Or visa versa. Or if they normally poop three times a day, and then suddenly start pooping just once a day (without any changes in diet or exercise), then that is a change that should be investigated with your vet. And so on.
What Your Dog's Poo Is Telling You
Whether or not the "poop(ing) characteristics" discussed below warrant a veterinary visit, and how soon, depends on a multitude of factors, including: how long they've been going on for, how severe they are, what your dog's appetite and energy level is, whether or not they're also vomiting, and a host of others. As with most things though, the earlier you catch potential poop problems, the better it will be for you and your dog. So going to the bathroom “together” with your dog – i.e., not just letting them out in the yard to do their business on their own – is an important opportunity for you to keep an eye on your dog’s “inner workings” and pick up on what they might be trying to tell you.
Straining to Defecate
Straining to defecate could be a sign of any of the problems listed below. And, regardless of the reason for a dog’s straining, too much straining, or straining for too long, could actually lead to a prolapse (“popping out”) of their rectum, which itself would require medical attention. So if you notice your dog struggling to defecate, it’s time for a trip to your veterinarian.
- Impacted anal glands or anal gland tumor
- Intestinal foreign body
- Intestinal tumor
- Intestinal inflammation
- Intussusception (when part of the intestine folds into an adjacent part of the intestine)
- Back pain
- Neurologic dysfunction
NOTE: Sometimes straining to poop could actually be a dog straining to pee. Because of the similarities of their peeing and pooping postures, the difference can be particularly difficult to see in female dogs. Either way, straining to eliminate warrants veterinary evaluation.
Dry or Overly Firm Stools
Stools that come out too dry or hard are typically an indication of dehydration or decreased (slow) intestinal movement. Dogs with overly dry or firm stools, regardless of their shape, are at increased risk of constipation and often experience a degree of discomfort when defecating. Chronic dry or overly firm poops warrant veterinary evaluation, and possibly a diet change (food changes should be done gradually).
Diarrhea or Loose Stools
Stools that come out too loose, watery, or soft can mean that a dog is dealing with one of the problems listed below. Note that the occasional soft or loose stool can be perfectly normal. However, any time a dog is having multiple soft or loose stools, any time a dog is having watery stools, or any “increased softness” of stools that persists for more than a couple of days definitely warrants veterinary evaluation.
- Intestinal worms or other parasites (e.g., Giardia, Coccidia)
- Bacterial overgrowth or infection of the digestive tract
- Viral infection of the digestive tract (including “Parvo”)
- Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Foreign body obstruction of the digestive tract
- Inflammation and thickening of the intestinal tract
- Food hypersensitivities (“food allergies”)
PRO TIP: Just like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, your dog’s poop shouldn’t be too hard or too soft, but rather “just right.” But what constitutes “just right,” you might ask? Generally speaking your dog’s poop should be “formed,” in that it comes out in a “log-type” shape. It should be firm enough to be picked up easily, but not hard or dry. And it shouldn’t leave too much “residue” on the ground when you pick it up. If you’re really curious, and have no problem seeing pictures of different types of dog poop, here’s a handy “poo consistency” chart that will help you know. The Grade 2, 2.5, and 3 stools in the chart are what would be considered "ideal" or "normal" in most situations. How does your pup's poop measure up?
Increased or Decreased Volume of Stools
The amount and frequency of your dog’s poops can tell you something, too:
- If the frequency goes up, or if the overall volume or amountthey’re producing increases, it could be that the amount they’re eating has increased (maybe you or someone else in your home is double-feeding them, maybe they’re getting some of your other dog’s (or cat’s) food, or maybe the neighbors are feeding them, too) or it could be that they’re not digesting and absorbing their food properly (inflammation of their gut, cancer of their gut, a new diet that they aren’t processing as well). Certain infections within the gut can also cause increased fluid secretion into the gut, and therefore result in an increase in stool volume.
- If the frequency or volume goes down, it could be that they’re not eating as well or as much as you thought (maybe another dog in your home is stealing their food) or things aren’t moving through their gut normally (perhaps there’s a digestive obstruction or they’re dehydrated). Or, if you’ve recently changed their diet, it could be that they’re utilizing and absorbing more of their new food than they were the old diet.
Different Colored Stools
Generally speaking, dog poop should be a consistent brown color. Though there can be some variation of the shade of brown your dog’s poop is, it really should always be brown. A change in color of their poop could mean anything from a change in diet or eating something they shouldn't have or can't digest to a problem with their intestines, pancreas, liver, or another internal organ. Generally speaking, unless one of the noted color changes below is due to eating grass or carrots, their persistence in more than 2–3 stools (and perhaps even just one, in the case of rat poison or large amounts of frank, red blood) warrant a veterinary visit. Here are some things that different colored poop could mean for your pup.
- Green: Typically indicative of a gut that’s moving too fast (known as “rapid bowel transit”), and so the normal bile pigments don’t have an opportunity to be resorbed from the gut. Green poop discoloration could also be from eating too much grass and some dental treats (like the OraVet chews and Greenies) can also give a greenish discoloration to a dog’s stools. There are also some rodenticides that have a greenish or greenish-blue coloring and can cause a dog’s poop to turn green when eaten. [Note: not all rat and mouse poisons are the same, some are far more dangerous for dogs than others. Learn more about rodenticides and dogs.]
- Orange: Stools that are orangeish in color frequently indicate inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). If your dog eats carrots though, that would be another common cause of orange colored stools in dogs.
- White or grey: A white or whitish-grey stool is often the result of a problem with a dog’s liver and gallbladder or an issue with their intestines or an issue where their pancreas isn’t producing the important enzymes it needs to. White stools will also be common for a day or so after a dog has been given barium for a radiographic (x-ray) contrast study or to help calm an inflamed gut or stop gastro-intestinal bleeding.
- Red: Unless your dog has gotten into beets, red discoloration of their poop is likely indicative of blood. If it’s bright red, normal looking blood, it’s most likely that the bleeding is occurring in their large intestine (or also possibly from their anal glands). And this bleeding could be due to a worm infestation, inflammation of the lining of the large intestine, a tumor in the large intestine, a foreign body (something stuck) in the large intestine, trauma, or a variety of other problems within the large intestine.
- Black: Not all blood in poop is bright red and obvious. If there’s bleeding higher up within the digestive tract, like in the stomach or small intestines, it’s likely that the blood will be partly digested by the time it comes out in the poop. This partially digested blood typically has a dark and tar-like appearance, rather than the bright red blood associated with a large intestinal problem. Upper gastro-intestinal bleeding could be the result of stomach or intestinal irritation, a tumor or ulcer, or even a body-wide bleeding problem (such as from liver dysfunction, rodenticide ingestion, or another cause). If your dog recently was given activated charcoal, such as for toxin ingestion, you can also expect their stools to have a dark black appearance for a day or so.
What's THAT In My Dog's Poop?!
Sometimes you’ll notice things or “stuff” in your dog’s poop that could clue you into what they’re getting up to when you’re not around or even to a medical problem, potentially a very serious problem. So taking note not just of the consistency, volume, and color of your dog’s poop, but also the contents of it, is a great way to get a sense of your dog’s health and habits. Here are some things that you should keep an eye out for in your dog’s poop and what they might mean. Again, whether or not the presence of the things discussed below warrant a veterinary visit, and how soon, depends on a multitude of factors. Always use your best judgement, and when in doubt ... call your vet to ask their opinion.
- Foreign material: Dogs eating “non-food” things is a condition calledpica, and the range of things that dogs will sometimes eat is kind of impressive (and scary). Dogs suffering from pica could have an underlying medical condition (like inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, or another), they could have a nutritional deficiency, or they can have a true behavioral disorder. The presence of fabric, strings or other bits of “materials” could indicate that your dog is eating your laundry, carpet, or even their toys when you’re not watching. This can lead to a foreign body obstruction requiring surgery if it continues. Rocks, sand, and dirt could also be an indication of pica, or even just that your dog is digging in your yard or is bored. Grass could indicate that your dog is nauseous or they could have a problem with their intestinal tract.
- Fur: If you’re routinely seeing fur in your dog’s stools, assuming that it’s not fur from another critter they’ve eaten or another pet they’ve been grooming, it’s often an indication that your dog either has an itchy skin disorder (e.g., flea infestation, mites, environmental or food allergies) or that they’re bored or have a behavioral issue.
- Blood: Keep an eye out for blood — either “frank” red or dark “tar-like” — in your dog’s stools. The potential causes are outlined above in the Different Colored Stools section.
- Mucus: Thick, slimy mucus in your dog’s poop is likely an indication of a problem like inflammation within your dog’s large intestine.
- Fat: Excessive fat in a dog’s poop will show up as a greasy stool. These types of stools often indicate that there’s too much fat in your dog’s diet or that they’ve got a gall bladder, pancreas, or intestinal problem or an overall problem with fat digestion or absorption.
- Worms: Creepy crawlies in your dog’s poop is an indication of an intestinal worm infection. Long, spaghetti-like worms are typically roundworms. (Puppies get roundworms from their mom and their environment, while adult dogs tend to get them from eating infected soil or even licking soil and worm eggs off their paws. Thankfully, there are good dewormers you can get from your vet and many of the monthly heartworm preventatives also protect against roundworm infections.) Short, “rice grain-looking” segments that move are indicative of a tapeworm infection (which itself is typically a sign that your dog has fleas, as dogs most frequently get a tapeworm infection by eating fleas that themselves have eaten tapeworm eggs). Yup, baby fleas often eat tapeworm eggs as they're gobbling down the "flea dirt" (dried blood their mama fleas leave behind for them in carpets and bedding).
As you’re hopefully now appreciating, going to the bathroom “together” with your dog is an important opportunity to get a quick picture of their overall health. I hope you’ll take advantage of that opportunity and keep an eye out for what your dog’s poop might be trying to tell you. Whenever there’s any doubt or concern, a check-up and fecal exam at your vet’s office is your best first step.