Caitlin UltimoHealth / Symptoms & Solutions

What To Do When Your Senior Dog Has Diarrhea

Senior dogs have their own set of problems with diarrhea. Generally, dogs over 8 years of age are considered a senior, but that designation varies somewhat with the size of the dog and the individual.

Small and toy breed dogs don’t really hit senior status until they are about 10 years old. Medium-sized dogs are often considered seniors at 8 to 10 years of age. Giant and large breed dogs are seniors at 5 to 7 years of age. No matter what the numerical age for senior status is for an individual dog, many dogs will share the same problems.

Causes Of Diarrhea In Senior Dogs

Arthritis is very common in all older dogs, but especially so in large and giant breeds. Spinal arthritis can be particularly painful and interfere with normal elimination. A straining senior dog could have diarrhea, could be constipated or could have arthritis of the spine. Sometimes a dog will actually be suffering from all three! With constipation, your dog may only be passing liquid stool that can get around the obstruction. That is also true with bowel cancers or any abdominal cancers that press on the intestines.

In addition, senior dogs are often on medications for arthritis. Some of those NSAIDs (non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs) can irritate the stomach and cause loose, black, tarlike stools. The black coloring comes from blood generated by ulcers in the stomach, which is then partly digested. My own 15-year-old Belgian Tervuren had a bout of this last spring. I had to change her arthritis medication regimen, put her on a probiotic, give her an intestinal antibiotic and give her some extra fluids. Luckily, her symptoms and problem resolved quickly. This is partly because I check her stools daily and caught the change immediately.

Some supplements for arthritis and other aging dog problems can also cause loose stools. This may be a temporary effect until your dog’s system adjusts to the new supplements, or it may be permanent. If your dog has loose or soft stool for a week or more after trying a new supplement, stop the supplement and add a probiotic to get his intestinal tract back to normal. Always consult your veterinarian before adding any supplements, including herbs and natural foods. The same advice holds true for giving your senior dog over-the-counter medications. Older dogs can be more sensitive to medication interactions and to side effects. Senior dogs sometimes metabolize medications more slowly or not as well as younger dogs.

Most senior dogs will be on a variety of medications and supplements designed to keep up their quality of life. Some of those medications can cause diarrhea — usually indirectly, as in the case of the stomach ulcers from pain medications. As another example, a round of antibiotics after a dental cleaning may cause diarrhea by killing off the “good bacteria” in the intestines despite the use of a probiotic. Small and toy breed dogs often require dental work as they age, more so than larger dogs.

Unfortunately, many older dogs also suffer from chronic illnesses. These illnesses may be very well managed as long as your dog stays normal. Diabetes is one example. Diabetic dogs do very well on special dietary regimens with insulin as needed. A bout of diarrhea can upset that careful balance. You should call your veterinarian if your senior dog has any chronic illness or is on long-term medications and develops diarrhea — even a mild case.

Another common ailment, especially of medium- to large-sized dogs, is geriatric vestibular syndrome. Older dogs may have a sudden onset of loss of balance, often with an accompanying head tilt. Many dogs will recover fully from this while others will adapt to their disability. At first, however, your dog may have trouble trying to eliminate or may stumble into any mess he makes. Luckily, these dogs do not seem to have any pain, but they will need some extra help going outside.

Sadly, diarrhea can also occur in older dogs as a result of life-threatening conditions, such as cancer. Lymphomas that interfere with the absorption of nutrients are one set of diarrhea-causing cancers. With cancer-related diarrhea, you may notice other signs first, such as loss of weight, a decrease in activity and either an increase in hunger or a loss of appetite.

Tips For Dealing With Dog Diarrhea

It is always important to know your dog’s “normal,” but especially so for a senior dog. If your dog normally has two bowel movements a day but suddenly wants to go out for three extra walks and has loose stool, you know there is a problem. A dog who normally has firm stools that suddenly become loose or soft, is heading for diarrhea.

Many senior dogs develop heavy hair coats, including the “feathers” on the rear and the tail. It is important to check under your senior dog’s tail daily. Loose stool can be caught in the coat and on the skin and create nasty sores. It can also literally bind hair across the rectum and interfere with future bowel movements. This can be a big problem in small dogs as they might even accidentally trail their “feathers” and tail through diarrhea on the floor or ground outside. Trimming the long hair right around the rectum is the best solution, along with the daily quick peeks.

Senior dogs have fewer reserves and less ability to bounce back quickly from illnesses and health problems. In that way, they are just like puppies! A senior dog with diarrhea may need some subcutaneous fluids even if he is drinking and eating. His kidneys aren’t as efficient as a young or adult dog’s kidneys. The extra fluids help to flush out toxins and keep him hydrated. With diarrhea of more than a 24-hour duration, your senior dog may even need an intravenous fluid boost.

Checklist For Dog Diarrhea

Things to keep in mind with your senior dog with diarrhea:

  1. Know your dog’s normals; maybe his stool is normally slightly soft.
  2. Always check with your veterinarian before adding any new supplements or over-the-counter medications, even herbs or all-natural ones.
  3. Be sure to go out with your older dog when he needs to eliminate. You can verify that he did go and help him back in, up steps, etc. as needed.
  4. If your dog has diarrhea for more than 24 hours, contact your veterinarian. In the meantime, encourage fluid intake.
  5. If you notice black stool, call your veterinarian immediately.

A senior dog is a wonderful companion and an important part of your family. He deserves the extra time and attention needed to keep him diarrhea-free, clean and comfortable.


By: Dr. Deb M. Eldredge

Featured Image: via tverkhovinets/iStock/Thinkstock

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