Constipation is a relatively common digestive issue, which most dogs will experience at some point! It can happen at any age, to any breed, but is more common in older dogs. Luckily, many cases are easily resolved with dietary changes or treatment. However, if ignored, constipation can make your pup seriously ill, so it’s important to know the symptoms to watch for.
What is constipation?
Constipation means struggling to pass stools, or passing them less frequently than usual. It can be very painful and can lead to dehydration if left untreated.
Signs your dog is constipated include:
- Straining to pass stools
- Whimpering or other forms of vocalizing pain
- Small, hard and dry stools
- Not passing any stools for more than a day
- Sore bottom
- Blood from the bottom
- Restlessness, circling
- Passing small amounts of liquid stool, due to straining.
Other symptoms can include a lack of appetite, being sick and a lack of energy.
It’s surprisingly easy to confuse constipation and diarrhea! A constipated pup may appear to have diarrhea, due to passing small amounts of watery stools. A pup with diarrhea may appear to be constipated, since dogs often strain unproductively once they are ‘empty’.
To confuse matters further, you need to figure out if they are truly straining to poo, or if they are straining to pass urine (pee). The latter is a medical emergency, so if you aren’t sure, you should call your veterinarian straight away. Showing them a video will help.
Reasons your dog is constipated
Constipation can be caused by something as simple as a change in diet or a lack of — or an excess of! — fiber in their diet. If your dog hasn’t had as much exercise as usual, this can cause constipation too.
There are also possible underlying medical conditions which can cause constipation in your dog, some more serious than others. Such conditions include:
- Gut problems, including eating things they shouldn’t
- A foreign body in the gut (bowel obstruction)
- Diseases affecting the colon, such as tumors or an enlarged colon
- Dehydration, which makes the stools dry and hard
- Kidney disease
- An enlarged prostate, which pushes on the last portion of the gut
- Arthritis or other painful conditions, which make it harder to squat
- Blocked anal glands
- Some neurological diseases (affecting the nerves controlling the colon and rectum)
- Some medications have constipation as a side effect.
Some of these are rare, so if your dog does become constipated, try not to worry, but do seek advice from your veterinarian.
One-off occurrence vs long-term condition
‘Acute’ constipation means that is comes on suddenly. Examples would be a sudden change in diet, an anal gland abscess or if your pup ate something they shouldn’t! Often resolving the underlying cause can prevent the problem continuing long term.
‘Chronic’ constipation means that the difficulty passing stools becomes a long-term problem. This could be the case in situations such as kidney disease or arthritis. When constipation becomes chronic, this can then cause other issues, such as dehydration. Effective management is essential to prevent these knock-on effects.
How to treat constipation in dogs
The treatment for constipation will depend on the cause. Many cases will need to be assessed and treated by a veterinarian. There are some things you can try at home, in some circumstances.
If you can see an obvious problem, you may be able to help. For example, your pup may allow you to gently shave matted fur from around their bottom. Or to gently remove a clump of grass. It is really important never to force anything and not to proceed if your dog becomes distressed, or you’re at risk of being bitten.
Remember to always wear gloves when touching your dog’s bottom, and to wash your hands afterwards.
If a sudden diet change is to blame, reverting to their usual diet may get things moving. Encouraging your dog to drink plenty of water and adding water to their food can also help to relieve mild constipation. Exercising can help move stools along too.
You should never give any medicines for constipation to your dog without your veterinarian prescribing them. Over the counter medicines can make your dog very poorly.
When to take your dog to the vet
Most cases of constipation will need to be assessed by a veterinarian. It’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and call your veterinarian if you suspect your pup is constipated. Let the experts decide if they need to examine your dog!
Signs your dog needs to see a veterinarian include:
- Not passing stools for 24 – 48 hours or more
- Your pup is in pain or distressed
- Your dog is unusually sleepy, or seems unwell in themselves
- A lack of appetite
- Your dog is also being sick or has other symptoms
These are all warning signs that your dog needs medical attention.
How your vet is likely to assess and treat your dog
Your veterinarian will first take a detailed history. This will enable them to figure out if it’s truly constipation; how long it’s been going on; whether there are any symptoms pointing to an underlying medical condition and also narrow down which tests they need to perform.
Next your veterinarian will examine your dog. This will likely include checking their hydration; feeling their tummy for pain or any unusual masses or blockages; examining their bottom; checking their temperature and performing a rectal exam.
Following this, if your veterinarian decides the constipation is mild and has a simple cause, they may decide to trial some treatment. This could include a prescription diet, adding fiber to their diet, laxatives, or enemas.
If your veterinarian suspects a medical condition is behind the constipation, they may need to carry out some tests. Depending on what they suspect, this could include bloodwork, imaging of the abdomen by x-rays or ultrasound, and urine tests.
For more serious cases of constipation, your pup may need to be hospitalized for fluids and an enema. This often needs to be performed under sedation or general anesthetic. They will also treat the underlying cause, such as surgery for a foreign body or draining an anal gland abscess.
How to prevent your dog from getting constipated
There are some things you can do at home to help promote healthy bowel movements, thereby reducing your pup’s chances of constipation:
- Regular exercise
- Avoid sudden dietary changes—you should always spend 2 weeks gradually introducing a new food
- Keep up with any treatment regimens for arthritis or ongoing pain
- Ensure your pup drinks plenty of water; consider several water bowl options or using a water fountain
- Help your dog to squat using a harness or towel to support them, if this is an issue
- Your veterinarian may advise a prescription diet, diet supplements or medication to help prevent constipation
Long term management is sometimes needed, such as diets designed to prevent constipation or ongoing medicines.
Constipation in dogs is common. Occasional, mild cases are usually nothing to worry about and can be easily treated. However, there are potentially some more serious causes. If your dog is struggling to pass stools, or hasn’t been for more than 24 hours, it’s best to call your veterinarian for advice.