Constipation is an inability to regularly produce normal stools. Dogs, like humans, typically pass stools once or twice a day. A dog that is constipated will either strain and produce nothing, or strain and then produce very hard, small stools. If your dog has not defecated properly for more than two days, then you can generally assume that constipation is the problem.
Normally, fecal matter is going to move through your dog’s digestive tract, being delivered to the colon, which works to reabsorb moisture so that a normal stool can be passed. Then feces passes through the colon and is eliminated. If the process becomes stalled, then the fecal matter will remain in the colon, too much moisture will be absorbed, and the feces will dry out and become hard. Then, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to pass.
Sometimes, the cause can be something as simple as a lack of exercise. Worst case scenario, the cause could be cancer. There are many causes, including the following:
- A blockage in the colon
- An obstruction outside the colon, like a pelvic fracture or tumor
- Nerve damage
- A diet lacking in fiber
- Eating non-food items
- Low activity
- Old age
- Enlarged prostate (in male dogs)
- Side effects from medication
- Spinal injury or disease
- Pain in the hindquarters making it hard to squat
Some of these causes can be easily identified by the dog’s owner. Others may need veterinary consultation.
What to Do
If your dog has just recently become constipated, there are things that you can try at home. I probably do not need to tell you not to use a human laxative on a dog – that could be very dangerous. But you could try a fiber supplement that is specially formulated for dogs. Or try adding some wheat bran, ginger or olive oil to his food. Err on the side of caution, though – too little is preferable to too much.
You can also try feeding your dog some canned pumpkin. Paradoxically, it seems to be equally effective for diarrhea. Pumpkin is high in moisture and fiber, and dogs seem to like the taste. You could buy pumpkin treats, but for the best effect, you are better off to give it in its original form. Don’t worry about giving too much – even a lot of pumpkin is not going to harm your dog.
If your dog is on a steady diet of dry dog food (which is generally best), you could try substituting canned food. This is because it is high in moisture, and could work to soften the stool and get things once more moving the way they should.
Of course you should make sure that your dog gets enough exercise at the best of times, but it is even more important if he is constipated. Low activity can cause constipation in the first place, and make it worse once it has occurred.
When to See the Vet
If constipation just lasts a day or two, you probably have no cause to worry. If it continues, though, not only is your dog going to be very uncomfortable, the constipation could be an indication of a far more serious problem. And even if it isn’t, it can lead to long-term problems like obstipation, which is a buildup of fecal matter that has dried out and become lodged in the colon. Left untreated, this can lead to megacolon, which is a distension of the colon that causes it to lose its ability to process feces.
Chronic constipation should never be ignored, so if the problem continues, book an appointment with your vet, and make sure that you are ready to provide all the information he or she will need.
Your vet will want to know when your dog last moved his bowels, the color and consistency of the stool, whether he may have ingested something out of the ordinary, if he is on any medication (this includes any herbal supplements that you may be offering), if he has sustained a recent injury, and if he is displaying any other symptoms, like lethargy or vomiting.
Your vet will begin by palpating your dog’s abdomen and doing a rectal exam. If this does not reveal the source of the problem, other measures may be needed, such as:
- Radiography of the abdomen
- Barium enema
- Blood work
- Neurological examination
In most cases, the problem can be corrected with simple treatments like offering dietary fiber and more liquids, or possibly a laxative suppository or enema.
In extreme cases, your vet may have to reach up into your dog’s bowel in order to manually extract impacted feces. He or she may also prescribe a drug that will work to block certain enzymes and restore the colon to normal function. Very rarely, surgery may be needed – this is generally warranted in cases of megacolon, and requires removal of the parts of the colon that are no longer working properly.
The Final Word
Most of the time, your dog’s constipation will be a temporary thing. It can be controlled by offering a properly balanced diet, plenty of fresh water, frequent exercise, and perhaps the use of a stool softener. If it continues, though, see your vet.