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Common Causes of Diarrhea
By Jocelynn Jacobs, DVM

Diarrhea and competitions go hand in hand with some performance dogs. They may have normal, healthy stools at home, but once at an event or after a few days of competition, their stools can literally fall apart. Many things cause diarrhea in dogs—the most common include viral infections, intestinal parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, other intestinal conditions, stress, and diet.

There are many intestinal viruses that cause diarrhea—parvovirus, coronavirus and rotavirus are the most common. Viral diarrhea can be particularly dangerous, as in the case of parvovirus infection since it infects, damages, and kills normal intestinal lining. Dogs infected with parvovirus have severe, bloody diarrhea that can be fatal if not treated by a veterinarian quickly. Coronavirus and rotavirus infections also damage the lining of the small intestine, but not as severely as parvovirus infection. However, if concurrent with other types of intestinal disease, they may be harder to overcome.

Vaccines are available for protective immunity against both parvovirus and coronavirus infections, but currently there are no vaccines for canine rotavirus infections.

Various worms and other organisms can live in dogs’ digestive tract. Roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, coccidia, and giardia are just a few. Intestinal worms can have a detrimental effect on your dog’s ability to properly absorb and digest nutrients, and can cause diarrhea if they are present in sufficient numbers.

Many parasites physically damage the lining of the digestive tract. Because of the propulsive movements of the small intestine, parasites latch on to the intestinal wall of their host, so they won’t be swept away with food and waste material. When this happens, the intestinal lining can become inflamed and the intestine may not be able to digest and absorb nutrients properly, resulting in diarrhea.

Bacterial Overgrowth
Bacteria are normally found in the intestinal tract of dogs. There are good species of bacteria, such as lactobacillus, and harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and certain strains of E. coli. Good bacteria are important because they help with digestion and provide nutrients for a healthy intestinal lining. Harmful bacteria may be introduced to the intestines by feeding contaminated or spoiled foods, or by eating bacterial contaminated objects from the environment. Many dogs have some harmful strains of bacteria present in the intestines but don’t become ill. However, during times of stress concurrent intestinal problems, harmful bacteria can reproduce to high levels, and can kill off or crowd out the beneficial bacteria. This condition is known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

SIBO is more common in dogs than most realize. A study done in 1995 found that 41 of 80 dogs (51%), representing 23 different breeds, had SIBO in conjunction with chronic diarrhea.1 Dogs with SIBO can have many different clinical signs associated with malabsorption such as weight loss, diarrhea, flatulence (gas), anorexia, coprophagy (eating stools), and an increased appetite. Diagnosing SIBO in dogs can be difficult because there is no easy test to determine the levels of harmful bacteria present in the intestines. Therefore, veterinarians must sometimes rule out all other causes of diarrhea before they can diagnosis SIBO as the cause of diarrhea and malabsorption.

Other Diseases
Certain types of intestinal cancer, metabolic diseases, and allergies can also cause diarrhea. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is another fairly common cause of diarrhea in dogs. With IBD, the intestinal lining is inflamed and filled with different types of white blood cells. Although small numbers of these cells are beneficial, when in large numbers, the intestinal lining becomes irritated, which results in diarrhea.

Stress also can cause diarrhea. Anxiety causes the sympathetic nervous system to increase intestinal motion. When the intestines move food through too quickly, nutrients are not absorbed properly, resulting in diarrhea. Dogs that are under stress for long periods of time may develop chronic diarrhea and weight loss.

Even your dog’s diet can cause diarrhea. Changing from one diet to another can cause intestinal upset and diarrhea if not done gradually (changing over 4 to 7 days). Different brands of dog foods have different protein, fat, carbohydrate, and fiber sources, and the intestines need time to acclimate to a new diet.

Some higher-fat diets may cause problems for particular breeds or individual dogs. If your dog develops diarrhea while on a high-fat diet, feeding a lower-fat diet may help resolve the problem.

Diarrhea is not a disease itself, but a clinical sign reflecting that the intestines are not working properly. It is important to consult with your veterinarian to determine the reason your dog has diarrhea and begin proper treatment. Diet can help promote intestinal health, however medication may be needed to resolve the underlying problem.