Life is funny (in the “odd” sense of the word). For example, take the same problem and different people react in different ways. This is something every vet is wise to remember, since what is a catastrophe for one client is a mere “flesh wound” for another.
Upset tummies are a case in point because if your dog normally has a rock-solid constitution, then an episode of diarrhea is alarming.
I’ve experienced the full range of reactions, from the client who phones at 2 a.m. when their pooch deposits a single soft poop on the lounge room carpet, through to the dog pouring blood out of the back end and the client does nothing until the dog collapses. Finding a middle path would be good, no?
A Post-Dental “Stress” Tummy
A poodle called Milly inspired this article. I saw her last Saturday.
A vigilant vet tech had made the appointment after a post-op phone call checking how the patient was after a routine dental descale. The client was concerned because Milly had bloody diarrhea, but she didn’t know whether to call in or not, as Milly had a history of a sensitive stomach.
Milly wagged her way into consult, bright as a shiny new coin. Her clinical exam was normal (and she had sparkly clean teeth). She had a history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), for which she took steroid tablets from time to time. Given that an anesthetic is stressful for any dog, it seemed reasonable that Milly’s upset was down to the stress triggering her IBD, so we beefed up her treatment.
Happily, I checked her notes yesterday and Milly was well on the mend. But this and a request from a staff member to view a photo of her dog’s bloody bowel movement set me thinking about IBD, colitis and sensitive tummies in general.
Why Some Dogs Get Blood in Their Poop
OK, blood in a bowel movement is an important sign not to overlook. It can happen for a number of reasons including:
- Infection: Serious infections, such as parvovirus, cause physical damage to the bowel.
- Clotting problems: If the dog has a blood-clotting disorder, then bloody feces or urine are a possibility.
- Inflammation: If the bowel wall is inflamed, this results in blood-stained stools.
What I want to focus on here is the 3rd of those possibilities: the inflamed bowel wall.
Bowel Wall Inflammation
When you have itchy skin, you may well scratch and scratch and scratch until your skin is red and inflamed. If you keep scratching that swollen, hot skin, it bleeds.
That sore skin is the external equivalent of what the lining of an inflamed gut looks like. For itchy skin, the damage is a result of physical trauma (scratching your skin). Similarly, eating raw bones can assault the gut wall to cause physical damage.
When a dog chews a bone, it can splinter. Those bone shards then pass along the gut, scraping as it goes, like rubbing the gut lining with coarse sandpaper.
But if you don’t give your dog bones, what else can cause gut wall inflammation?
Food allergies in people can cause potentially serious, shock-like reactions. However, in dogs, it’s more common to have itchy skin, sickness or diarrhea.
A food allergy happens when the dog’s immune system labels an ingredient as dangerous and raises an immune reaction against it. This causes inflammation and swelling of the bowel wall, resulting in the symptoms of an upset stomach.
Some breeds — for example, the Boxer and French Bulldog — have a genetic tendency toward bowel inflammation. This is a specific form of colitis and results from bacteria invading the cells of the gut, causing severe inflammation.
The word colitis refers to inflammation of the colon, and this is a common condition in many older dogs. Often an underlying cause for the inflammation isn’t found.
Usually, the symptoms of blood, mucus and diarrhea are put down to the bowel not coping as it should and struggling to process food.
Food intolerance is subtly different from food allergy. Whereas an allergy is the result of an activated immune system, an intolerance is caused by the food being difficult to digest.
The classic example is milk causing diarrhea in dogs who lack the enzyme necessary to digest milk sugars. Another example is high-fat foods, which some dogs struggle to absorb, and this results in an upset tummy.
Food allergy is a specific type of immune-mediated disease that affects the gut wall. However, the immune system can become overactive and cause inflammation for other reasons apart from food.
Some of these factors are recognized such as parasites or bacterial antigens, but sometimes, despite investigation, a cause is never found. In these dogs, it’s thought the problem may be hereditary and written in their genes.
Hookworms and whipworms slugging it out inside the gut is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. However, these nasty wrigglies also secrete digestive juices that interfere with blood clotting. This makes it easier for them to feed, but the poor dog struggles to repair damage to the gut lining and, as a result, passes bloody stools.
Here are some other signs of stress to watch for in your dog:
Stress and Anxiety
Ever had an upset tummy ahead of an important job interview?
Stress and anxiety are well recognized as triggering diarrhea. This is an especially common problem in dogs, with IBD being the most common cause of sickness and diarrhea in dogs.
Again, there can be contributing factors, such as parasites or dietary intolerance, but often no underlying cause is found.
Just like Milly, when the dog is stressed, it affects her bowel movements. While it’s not possible to avoid all stress, you can help:
- Feed an easily digestible diet containing good-quality protein.
- Conversely, some dogs respond well to a high-fiber diet, which seems to “calm” the gut.
- Offer probiotics after a flare-up. This helps repopulate the bowel with helpful bacteria.
- Steroids: The worst cases may need the anti-inflammatory oomph of steroids to settle the gut wall inflammation.
- Antibiotics: Some antibiotics, such as metronidazole, have an anti-inflammatory effect and will help some cases.
- Vitamin B12: This vitamin is vital to bowel health, and levels are often depleted after bad diarrhea.
To get well, Milly needed time, a bland diet, probiotics — and a one-off shot of steroids.
Happily, the bounce is already back in her bungee, and she made a full recovery. I’m hoping her human is now going to brush her dog’s teeth every day so that Milly won’t need another descale and the stress of a general anesthetic.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed June 8, 2018.