Constipation is not a common problem in dogs, but it can occur, creating an uncomfortable "backup" of hard, dry stool that a dog cannot easily pass. Sometimes, canine constipation is mild and resolves quickly on its own. Less frequently, the condition becomes serious and indicates an underlying medical condition such as intestinal obstruction that may be fatal if left untreated. Senior dogs are more susceptible to occasional bouts of constipation because they experience slower digestion and decreased organ function.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation is the inability to pass stool in a normal, comfortable way on a daily basis. Difficulty defecating or passing small clumps of hard, dry stool are indicative of constipation.
Symptoms of Constipation in Dogs
If you regularly walk your dog or supervise its outdoor time, you are likely aware of your pet's bathroom habits and will promptly recognize a problem. Here are symptoms of constipation to look for:
Decreased, Difficult, or Absent Bowel Movements
A decrease in the regularity of your dog's bowel movements could be a sign that constipation is developing. If your dog is constipated, it may strain to pass stool in an oddly hunched posture. Make sure diarrhea isn't the culprit, as fecal urgency is also common after dogs have diarrhea, and this problem requires different treatment than constipation.
If your dog goes two or more days without a bowel movement, that's a sure sign of constipation.
Hard, Dry Stool
Constipation can also be indicated by stool that is hard and dry, smaller than normal, and pebble-like.
Blood may be present in a constipated dog's stool because straining to pass hard, dry stool has caused small blood vessels in the rectum to break and bleed.
Lack of Appetite
Your dog may feel bloated or full if it is constipated, so it will not want to eat because trying to digest food will only add to its discomfort.
Causes of Constipation
Many different factors can cause a dog to become constipated. The following are some of the potential causes of constipation:
- Foreign body obstruction (grass, hair, rocks, cloth, pieces of a toy, etc.)
- Obstruction due to abnormal tissue growth (tumor, polyp, congenital malformation)
- Gastrointestinal motility disorder
- Enlarged prostate (male dogs)
- Medication side effects
- Matted hair covering the anus
- Orthopedic or neurological problem
- Immobility or extremely sedentary lifestyle
Diagnosing Constipation in Dogs
If your dog's constipation does not improve or resolve within 36 hours, then it's time to go to your veterinarian. After evaluating your dog's history, the vet will perform a physical examination, including abdominal palpation to feel for stool in the colon.
Radiographs (X-rays) may be recommended to determine the severity of constipation and reveal potential internal causes of the condition. Depending on your dog's age and the exam findings, your vet may also recommend lab work to assess your dog's organ function, electrolyte balance, and blood cell counts.
Your veterinarian is always the best source of treatment options, but if you notice mild constipation in your dog, you can try the following steps at home that may give your pet some relief and help resume normal defecation:
- Hydration: Hydration is key to your dog's digestive health, and adding moisture to your dog's body is usually the key to resolving mild constipation. Try adding water or low-sodium chicken broth to your dog's food.
- Canned food: If your dog usually eats dry food, you can try feeding canned food (preferably the canned version of its current diet to avoid additional gastrointestinal disturbance).
- Pumpkin: Adding a tablespoon of canned pumpkin (plain, not pie filling) to your dog's kibble with water or broth can help hydrate the stool and encourage a bowel movement.
- Exercise: Sometimes all it takes to get your dog's bowels moving is activity. If your dog is healthy enough to exercise, take it for a long walk or play a game of fetch. Regular activity is also a good way to prevent constipation that may reoccur regularly in senior dogs.
If your dog passes stool after being constipated, the first bowel movement may contain hard, dry stool. After that, it is not uncommon for dogs to pass soft stools for a day or two. If your dog develops watery or frequent diarrhea, visit the vet for treatment.
Usually, veterinary treatments can be administered in a couple of hours, and then your dog can return home for the night. Some treatments that your vet may provide include:
- Enema: If your dog is truly constipated, your vet may perform an enema to remove the backed-up stool.
- Subcutaneous fluids: Subcutaneous fluids will be administered to improve your dog's hydration status.
- Medication: Your vet may prescribe a medication like lactulose to help your dog with bowel movements. Do not give your dog human laxatives, which are dangerous to animals.
- Hospitalization: Most dogs do not need to be admitted to the hospital for constipation. If your dog is very dehydrated or has other medical problems, though, it may need intravenous fluids and/or additional treatments to address underlying conditions.
Prognosis for Dogs With Constipation
Constipation usually resolves with re-hydration and/or a boost in activity level. If your dog's constipation reoccurs frequently or is severe and persistent (a condition called obstipation), your veterinarian will help determine the cause and best course of treatment. Depending on the severity and underlying condition, this may include surgery. You also may be referred to a veterinary specialist for a second opinion, advanced diagnostics, or specialized treatments.
How to Prevent Constipation in Dogs
If your dog is generally healthy, there are some simple steps you can take to prevent constipation:
- Water: Ensure constant access to clean water, especially in hot weather or after exercise, for appropriate hydration.
- Fiber: Feed a high-fiber diet for your dog's digestive health. Review the contents of your dog's food and check with the vet to be sure your pet has enough fiber.
- Exercise: Give your dog enough exercise daily. Dogs need regular exercise, and some breeds need more than others. It's easy to settle for the shortest possible walks on cold days, but frequently doing this can impair your pet's digestion and provoke other health problems.
- Toys: Limit natural bones, which can sometimes lead to blockage and constipation if broken fragments become lodged in the dog's intestine. If your dog is prone to constipation, consider choosing nylon chew toys designed for "tough chewers" that do not easily break or pull into pieces.
- Observation: Evaluate your dog's stool and bathroom habits regularly so you can be aware of any changes and address them before a problem progresses.
Disorders of the Stomach and Intestines in Dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual.