Constipation is an unpleasant problem that can even strain a relationship.
Oscar is a handsome Golden Retriever with a broad skull, soulful brown eyes and honey-colored coat. But one Monday morning he was looking distinctly less than his best. This usually happy patient who wags throughout his clinic visits was distressed as his family bickered in the waiting room.
During the consultation, I found that Oscar’s discomfort was more physical than emotional as he was painfully constipated. The problem resulted from a lamb shank bone he’d had as a treat over the weekend. The trouble was the bone shards had scraped their way through his intestine (causing soreness and inflammation) and then clumped together in his rectum to form a hard spiky ball that Oscar was unable to pass.
The cause of his family’s fighting was that the wife had forbidden the husband to give Oscar the bone, but he’d gone ahead and done it anyway. What the husband hadn’t realized was that bones are a common source of constipation in dogs. The bone spicules are abrasive against the bowel lining, and the final insult is they can mesh together and form a blockage.
Poor Oscar was so bunged up that he needed an enema under general anesthetic to get things moving again, but happily it all worked out in the end.
Common Causes of Constipation
Bones aside, the common causes of constipation are divided into dietary issues, medical problems and pain-related.
- Dietary Deficiency: Dogs need fiber. Fiber is good on so many levels, primarily because it produces a soft, bulky stool that is easier to pass. Dogs lacking fiber are more likely to be constipated as well as suffering secondary problems such as blocked anal sacs.
- Medical Problems: Health issues not directly related to the bowel can have a knock-on effect that results in constipation. For example, the sluggishness associated with underactive thyroid glands can extend to the bowel. Other causes include enlarged prostate glands (which press on the rectum, causing it to narrow) or perineal hernias (a pocket or “blind alley” beside the rectum, into which feces get diverted and trapped).
- Pain-Related: Conditions such as arthritis or hip dysplasia make it painful for a dog to squat. Therefore, he’s more likely to hold on, which means the feces spend longer in the rectum and become harder and drier as a result — which then makes them difficult to pass.
How To Know If Your Dog Is Constipated
What signs should you be alert for to know your dog is constipated?
This is a good question because the main symptom — straining — might not necessarily be the result of constipation. Straining is also associated with bladder problems and diarrhea. So if you see this sign, take a closer look.
- Is he passing good-sized puddles of urine? Or is it coming out in dribbles or not at all? If this happens, contact your veterinarian immediately because urinary problems can be life-threatening.
- What is he passing from his bowel? If it’s hard, dry nuggets after a good deal of straining, chances are he’s constipated. But be aware that dogs with diarrhea may strain and not produce anything — this is because the inflammation in their bowel gives them a feeling of urgency. In this case, have a patrol around the yard and be on the alert for tell-tale puddles of liquid feces.
Constipated dogs are often uncomfortable and not interested in food. Indeed, some dogs will vomit and seem depressed. Also, some dogs will smell of feces and have soiling around the rear end.
This involves a combined approach of giving laxatives and enemas, and addressing predisposing issues (such as arthritis).
- Laxatives: The best laxative is one commonly prescribed for people: lactulose. This liquid is given by mouth and forms a moist, bulky stool that helps things move along. However, it can take a couple of days to work — if the dog is as uncomfortable as Oscar, then something needs to be done more quickly.
- Enemas: These are lubricants such as liquid paraffin, or warm soapy water, gently introduced into the dog’s rectum with the aim of softening and lubricating the hard stool. If the problem is mild, this can be done in the conscious dog, but in severe cases an anesthetic is necessary.
- Correcting Other Problems: Let’s look at the bigger picture. To stop the constipation from recurring, it’s best to correct underlying health issues. This means putting an arthritic dog on painkillers — or, in Oscar’s case, banning bones.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed March 20, 2015.