Dog owners living in New York City know all too well how quickly the bill for an unassuming trip to the vet can become as costly as their monthly rent or mortgage payment. Let’s say Chewie has diarrhea, so his concerned parents take him to the doctor and are told about the handful of common causes, and also about the worse, not-so-common ones. A slew of diagnostics are recommended while medications that will treat the symptoms are prescribed. A thousand dollars later, the blood test, fecal exam, x-rays and ultrasound reveal nothing more than some slight inflammation in Chewie’s intestines, which has probably been caused by the piece of chicken that he sereptitiously swiped from the sidewalk near the halal cart yesterday. Meanwhile, the antibiotic that he was given has now brought on an ear infection, so back his parents go, to get cleanser and medicine for that problem. And getting the second exam fee waived? Maybe when dogs fly.
There’s nothing wrong with the approach of immediately ruling out everything, as long as you’ve got deep pockets, but for the rest of us, it would be nice to hear about natural remedies that we can try and how long we can safely wait for symptoms to abate. Many health problems that could be signs of something serious are not, and knowing a bit about your dog’s body, as well as some simple fixes involving items you may already have at home, can often prevent medicating unnecessarily and paying exorbitantly.
For starters, it may have been possible to coax Chewie’s diarrhea into submission simply by feeding him some plain, canned pumpkin. In order to know whether or not it’s safe to hold off on the vet trip, it’s essential to know what your average, this-too-shall-pass sort of diarrhea looks like. Common, run-of-the-mill runs resulting from ingestion of rich or spicy foods or general upset is usually uniform in color, mucousy and may even have a little bit of bright, red blood in it. A dog experiencing this will strain while going, but any displays of pain should subside as soon as he’s finished, and his energy level should not drop dramatically. Once you’ve established that this is likely not an emergency (and you’ll find a list of red flags below this section, to safeguard against UNDERreaction), you can try some diet adjustments.
Pumpkin is high in fiber, low in calories and dog tummies love it.* When my dogs eat a bit too much fun food like, let’s say, bacon from the mysterious bacon fairy, and their stomachs become wonky, I boil chicken and rice (the tried and true gastrointestinal system-settling diet that most vets will recommend), add some pumpkin and, voila, all is right with the poo again. Giving your dog a Kong (that beehive-shaped, fillable rubber toy) that has been stuffed with pumpkin and then frozen is also a fabulous way to keep things solid on a regular basis, plus it’s a brilliant way to keep him busy while he’s home alone. Most of my clients fill and freeze two or three pumpkin Kongs each evening so that I can give them to their dogs after hot summertime walks.
Ginger is another food that’s pretty magical, since it helps not just to alleviate nausea but also to prevent bloat, ease arthritis, treat heartworm and even fight cancer. I combine it with pumpkin when my dogs are both vomiting and having diarrhea, and it almost always does the trick. I prefer raw ginger, since it’s the most potent. The skin should be removed and the yellow part of the root minced, and the general guidelines, as recommended by a veterinarian to readers of Dogs Naturally Magazine online, are 1/4 teaspoon for miniature breeds, 1/2 teaspoon for dogs who are 15 to 35 pounds and 3/4 teaspoon for larger dogs.
It’s important to keep your dog hydrated during a bout with loose stool or vomiting, and Pedialyte will work as well for him as it does for children (be sure to choose the flavorless kind, dogs tend not to appreciate cherry or grape flavor as much as we do). If you don’t see any improvement with the help of pumpkin, chicken, rice and electrolytes after about 24 hours, and certainly if the diarrhea worsens, it’s time to take Chewie to the vet. Intestinal parasites including giardia and coccidia should be ruled out, and since a fecal exam is one of the least expensive diagnostics because it can usually be processed in-house (meaning it doesn’t need to be sent to a laboratory), this is a good place to start. A complete blood count and chemistry profile may be called for in order to rule out certain diseases, and x-rays and ultrasounds may now be necessary to make sure there are no foreign objects (chicken bones can wreak havoc since they splinter!) in his intestines.
And now for the red flags –
- If your dog is a puppy who hasn’t been fully vaccinated yet and she’s vomiting, having severe diarrhea AND is lethargic, go to the vet immediately. These could be signs of parvovirus, a serious illness that can be fatal if not caught soon enough in especially young pups.
- If the diarrhea is liquidy and appears to have DARK blood in it (or, worse, bloody chunks), likewise, seek help right away. This could mean your dog is suffering from hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, which can also be life-threatening since it is intensely dehydrating, so much so that it can cause dogs to go into shock.
- Depression, extreme lethargy and social withdrawal are bad. Remember that scene toward the end of Marley and Me, when Marley ran off into the woods? Shudder.
High fever, pale gums, dehydration and dilated pupils are all indicators of illness, and since they’re the first things a vet will check, you should be savvy about these windows to your dog’s health.
- To take your dog’s temperature, cover a thermometer with plastic wrap and use some petroleum jelly or KY, and insert it (do I need to mention where?) until you feel tension. Do yourself and your dog a huge favor and use a digital thermometer, for speed’s sake. The normal range is much higher than ours, 101 to 102.5.
- Happy gums should be pink, not pale or yellow, and you can check for proper circulation by pressing your finger against them for a few seconds and then releasing. You’ll see a white spot when you take your finger away, but it should re-fill with blood and become pink again almost instantly.
- To identify dehydration, lift your dog’s skin to a peak right between his shoulder blades and see how long it takes to settle back in. If it collapses immediately, your dog is fine, but if it sort of sluggishly falls or even remains creased in the center, he’s pretty parched, and this may not be a job for extra water or Pedialyte, it may require subcutaneous fluids.
- If your dog’s eyes resemble those of an anime character, it’s not because he loves you and is trying to be adorable, it could be because his pupils are enlarged due to the neurological effects of a toxic substance. Stomach troubles and pupil dilation often point to ingestion of anything from rat poison to a household plant (before keeping any plants, or their dropped leaves or blooms, within reach of your dog, consult the list of toxic ones provided by the ASPCA here – https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants).
That’s enough medical gobbledygook for now. I will cover ears (including how to naturally prevent and treat that infection that Chewie developed earlier), eyes, skin and teeth cleaning in another post. Gastrointestinal distress was the reason for the overwhelming majority of non-routine vet trips with which I assisted, as a technician, so hopefully you’re now armed with the knowledge and power to say no to breaking the bank over indigestion.
*Tummies love pumpkin, but I just learned from a past client that her Bulldog’s skin does not…at least not Libby’s brand. Her pup has broken out in hives each time she’s fed him Libby’s pumpkin filling, which we suspect is a reaction to pesticides, since he doesn’t seem to have that issue with the organic brand she sometimes uses. So, it’s worth mentioning that organic may be worth the extra couple of dollars here, especially if you have a brachycephalic breed (Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Boston Terriers), since they are more prone to allergies. Oh, and the Bulldog pup’s owner says she will continue to use the organic pumpkin since it “truly has been a cure-all” for his incessant intestinal problems. Yay.