Forget bird watching! By paying attention to your dog's stool you can uncover some health maladies.
For people, the term "toilet talk" refers to the sort of language that can't be [displayed on this web site.] But for dogs, "toilet talk" is quite another matter.
Dogs use their urine and feces to communicate with each other - but in addition, their waste byproducts can send some important messages to people. Although the very idea may gross out some people, the fact is that a dog's bowel movements can reveal a great deal about the animal's health. At the very least, their color, volume and frequency can alert owners and veterinarians alike to the existence, nature and source of a variety of canine maladies.
To get the scoop on the message in a dog's poop, it's important to understand what a normal canine bowel movement looks like. Achieving such an understanding, however, can be trickier than it seems. That's because two canine solid waste deposits can look quite different from each other - but both can be considered normal.
"The color [of a normal bowel movement] is variable, depending on the food eaten and the amount of bile [in the dog's system]," explains Richard Goldstein, DVM, lecturer in clinical sciences at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "It can be anywhere from tan to dark brown, with the occasional green or orange movement."
However, any normal dog stool has other characteristics that do not vary from one animal to the next. "It's formed enough to be able to be picked up without leaving a lot behind," says Dr. Goldstein. "And there's no mucus."
The frequency of bowel movements also is normally pretty consistent from dog to dog: "One to three times daily," Dr. Goldstein says.
Frequency and Volume
According to Dr. Goldstein, significant deviation from a normal pattern of defecation can furnish clues to a veterinarian about the source of a medical problem.
A dog that's having a lot of bowel movements that are each very small is probably having some sort of trouble in its large intestine. "The dog strains, cries and has trouble getting the feces out," says Dr. Goldstein. There may also be fresh blood or mucus in the stool.
Conversely, a dog that's not eliminating any more often than normal, but whose deposits are abnormally large when they do occur, is probably having a problem in its small intestine. According to Dr. Goldstein, such movements also are frequently very smelly, and may contain bits of undigested food.
Knowing where the ailment is occurring can help a veterinarian pinpoint the cause of the dog's problem. But other clues can help narrow the diagnostic process even further.
The color of a dog's feces can provide important clues about what's going wrong internally. Here are some common, but abnormal colors and what they might signal:
Grey: "This is known as acolic poop," says Dr. Goldstein. "It's cement-colored, and it may signal an obstruction of the bile duct." Such an obstruction could signal a gall bladder problem - although that's not a common condition in dogs - or it might indicate a tumor or pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas).
Very dark: Feces that are black or very dark brown in color - especially if they look like tar or coffee grounds -indicate that the dog has digested its own blood, Dr. Goldstein says. They may signal bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract that is occurring as a result of an ulcer, a kidney or liver problem, gastritis or inflammatory bowel disease.
Other possibilities are problems in the small intestine, such as tumors or parasites. Less likely but still possible causes are a bleeding tooth, other bleeding in the mouth, dental disease or even swallowing the blood that results from an overlicked paw.
Blood-streaked: Feces that contain streaks of fresh (red) blood indicate that there's bleeding in the dog's large intestine. Such bleeding could signal the onset of colitis or a rectal tumor. Another possibility is giardia, a protozoan parasitic infection.
The shape of the stool matters, too. For example, says Dr. Goldstein, "thin strips of stool are typical of a narrowing in the colon or rectum. This happens most commonly with an enlarged prostate, a mass in the abdomen pressing on the colon or a stricture in the colon or rectum itself."
Quite often, a dog's solid waste deposits don't tell the animal's health story all by themselves. The deposits may contain other material that provides additional clues about a potential ailment.
For example, oiliness in the stool may be a sign of pancreatic insufficiency. Dogs with this condition can't process the fat in their foods. According to Dr. Goldstein, pancreatic insufficiency is not uncommon in young dogs, especially German shepherds.
Stools that contain little pieces that resemble small-grain rice may be evidence of tapeworms. Particles that look like alfalfa sprouts or spaghetti may be roundworms. And, of course, a dog's dietary indiscretions - food and nonfood alike often show up in the stool.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Using poop to get the scoop on a dog's health requires being willing to keep track of the animal's elimination habits and visually examine the stools. Knowing how often your dog usually poops each day, and what his normal output looks like, gives you a baseline from which to determine what's normal and not normal for your pet.
Once you have that information, "it's important to share your observations with your veterinarian," says Dr. Goldstein. "The veterinarian will work up a diagnostic plan based on the information you give him or her. Then, depending on the diagnosis, you and your veterinarian can formulate a treatment plan."