It’s walk-time for the dog! Don’t forget your poo bags! Hm… but actually you haven’t needed them for a few days now. In fact, you’re not sure that your dog has pooped for the last three days at all! So what does this mean? Should you be worried? What should you do?
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What is Constipation:
Constipation refers to a reduced frequency or more difficult passing of stools. Dogs vary wildly in how often they normally poo, so you will have to know what is normal for your dog to know if they are going less frequently. There are many causes of constipation, which we will dive into later.
A constipated dog may poo less frequently or even not at all. If they do poo, the poo can be hard and rock-like, covered in mucous or blood, and is often small in quantity. Going to the toilet may be uncomfortable for your dog, so they may yelp or cry out. Sometimes they may try to pass stools but nothing comes out.
In extreme cases, the longer stool remains inside your dog’s colon, the more dried out it becomes. This is termed obstipation. As it becomes drier, the stools become harder and harder to pass, resulting in it becoming even more dried out in a vicious cycle. This can cause severe pain, loss of appetite, vomiting, bloating and even a condition called megacolon where the colon becomes stretched and damaged.
Causes of Constipation:
There are many causes of constipation and this list is not exhaustive, but these are some of the most common.
If a dog isn’t eating, they aren’t producing any faeces, so will poo less. There are, of course, as many reasons why a dog won’t eat as there are causes of constipation itself. Some common causes are stress, gastrointestinal pain, vomiting or diarrhoea (yes, diarrhoea can lead to constipation), liver, pancreas and kidney disease, and general unwellness. If your dog hasn’t gone to the toilet recently, how much have they eaten in the last few days?
As we mentioned above, when the stools dry out too much in the colon, it can make passing faeces more difficult, thus causing constipation. Body-wide dehydration can cause constipation – the body tries to conserve as much water as it can, so absorbs too much from faeces, leading to drying out.
Dehydration can be caused by excessive fluid loss due to vomiting, diarrhoea, fever or blood loss, not drinking enough (especially in summer), kidney disease (older dogs are especially vulnerable to this), and even cancer. Is your dog showing any signs of dehydration, such as tacky pale gums or inelastic skin?
If the intestinal tract is blocked, stools cannot pass easily, resulting in constipation. As the stools dry out, they block more stools, becoming a blockage themselves, making the problem worse. Blockages that cause constipation can occur anywhere from the stomach to the anus.
Probably the most common blockages are due to ingesting foreign bodies – dogs that like to scavenge are especially vulnerable to this. Other blockages can be caused by masses growing in the intestines or anus, blocked anal glands, and twisted or telescoped intestines (these are common in young dogs). Older male dogs that haven’t been castrated are susceptible to prostate enlargement, which if left untreated can block the rectum, causing constipation. This is one of the reasons why we so often recommend castration. Finally, damage to the pelvis can result in a blockage if the bones start to compress the colon – constipation is one of the big complications resulting from these kinds of breaks.
Dogs that have lower intestinal blockages often try to pass stools but do so painfully. The stools may be flat ribbon shapes if the blockage is partial. Blockages further up present like other forms of constipation, or may even result in vomiting if high enough. Is your dog struggling when trying to pass faeces?
Ileus describes where the intestinal tract stops moving – this causes faeces to get stuck, resulting in drying out and constipation. A complication of surgery and general anaesthetics is ileus, particularly when opioid pain relief drugs are used. If a dog is at risk of post-operative ileus, we can provide medication to prevent this – surgery of the intestines is a particular risk.
Other causes of ileus include imbalances with electrolytes (again, this is common with chronic kidney disease), blockages, sepsis and septic shock, infection or inflammation of the intestinal tract, and blockage to the blood supply. Pelvic injuries can sometimes damage the nerves to the colon, so even if there is no physical blockage, pelvic damage can cause constipation.
Dogs with ileus have reduced gut sounds when we listen to their abdomens with a stethoscope – you might be able to listen and hear no or reduced gurgling in dogs with ileus.
A lack of exercise can result in constipation – movement and exercise helps keep the gut moving, through physical action as well as release of hormones. Dogs that are lazy, or immobile for medical reasons, are at greater risk of constipation. Ensure dogs that cannot move after accidents or surgery get some form of exercise or drugs from your vet.
A poor diet, particularly one low in fibre, can also result in constipation. Indigestible fibre is responsible for bulking out stools – this provides something for the intestines to push against, helping move stools through the tract. Low fibre results in softer stools, which are harder to pass along the intestines, so tend to get stuck and dry out. Most dog foods should contain enough fibre, but you can always add a handful of plain bran flakes to their meals if they are lacking.
Finally, dogs that groom themselves a lot tend to swallow a lot of fur – fur can get clogged up in faeces and slow down movement. In extreme cases, it can result in full blockage. Over-grooming like this can be linked to skin disease, pain or even behavioural issues, so should be addressed before it causes problems.
What Should You Do?
So you are suspecting your dog has constipation. What should you do? As always, if you are at all concerned, we recommend speaking to your vet. Remember, the longer constipation lasts, the greater the risk for drying out and obstipation, so it is better to seek veterinary assistance sooner rather than later.
Saying that, you might be able to determine the severity of the constipation based on how your dog is. Are they bright and well, and not overly painful? This is a good sign. If they are sick, depressed, or vomiting, these are more concerning.
You can also look at their back end – can you see anything sticking out that could be a blockage? Or spotted anything in their stools? Generally, we recommend not pulling things from their bottom as it can cause damage. But have they eaten anything recently that could be causing a blockage? Are they a scavenger?
If there is mild constipation, with no pain or general unwellness, you can try and treat it at home. This will involve increasing their exercise, increasing water intake and adding more fibre to the diet. Sometimes, this is enough to get things moving again. However, if they don’t respond to this, definitely see your vet.
At The Vets:
The constipation hasn’t shifted and it’s now been three days, so you sensibly see your vet. What can you expect?
First of all, your vet will ask questions similar to those above, focusing on your dog’s history and trying to narrow down the causes. They will then examine your dog, checking their heart rate, abdominal comfort, gum colour and moisture, temperature and more. Often they will want to feel in your dog’s bottom, to determine if there is a blockage – this is especially true in unneutered male dogs.
Depending on what they find, your vet may offer a blood test to assess organ function, an x-ray or ultrasound to view the inside of your dog, or even advanced imaging like CT or MRI if available. It is important to identify the primary cause of constipation.
Treatment will, of course, vary depending on the cause. Sometimes, we cannot identify a primary cause straight away, and must just treat the constipation alone. Constipation can often be shifted via an enema, which hydrates and loosens the stool. Obstipation in particular needs an enema. Fluid therapy will restore hydration if your dog is dehydrated, preventing further water loss from the stools. If there is any pain, strong pain relief can be administered. We may also dispense a drug called metoclopramide, which is a pro-motility drug to reduce ileus, and lactulose which is a laxative. If your dog is well enough, we may send them home with these drugs. Again, we also encourage regular exercise to keep things moving through. In extreme cases, if the stools cannot be moved, surgery may be required to manually move the faeces.