Dear Dr. Thompson: We have a 5-month-old puppy that has been having problems with diarrhea. It doesn't happen all the time, but she seems to be gaining weight and acting fine otherwise. Is this normal for a dog this age or should we be concerned?
With a dog this age there are typically three main problems that can cause intermittent soft stools or outright diarrhea and it can take some trial and error to get to the bottom of the condition. Unfortunately, chronic diarrhea in young dogs can have the unintended effect of delaying house training, since she is likely having accidents in the house, so it is important to find the solution early on.
Intestinal parasites are far more common than people realize in our region of the country. Many parasites are transmitted to puppies from their mothers, either through the milk or from the environment. One particularly pesky species called a whipworm does not start to appear until this age and can be difficult to diagnose.
The wide variety of parasites that infect young pets are the reason it is recommended that dogs have repeated microscopic examinations of stool samples. Often people are surprised their dog is infected because they are not seeing the worms in the stool, but the tiny eggs are detected in the sample. Single-celled organisms such as giardia or coccidia might be the culprits and special testing may be needed to diagnose the infection accurately. Some of these parasites are contagious to people and protecting every member of the family is also part of the screening process that all dogs and cats undergo at this age.
A broad diagnosis that is used for young knuckleheads who will eat anything and everything is called dietary indiscretion. As she explores her world she may chew and swallow any number of items. Not surprisingly, some of these may cause recurring bouts of digestive upset. These are typically self-limiting and will get better as she is trained to avoid putting everything in her mouth. The bigger health concern would be if she was to eat something toxic or develop a bowel obstruction, but she would be acting sick if that were the case.
Once you and your veterinarian have eliminated intestinal parasites and other more simple causes, a dietary sensitivity would need to be considered. This is more difficult than it might seem because common proteins and carbohydrate sources are present in most diets. Even diets that tout unusual protein sources still can have beef and chicken protein present. This also means absolutely no people food and rawhides, dental chews, and other treats. Some trial and error with novel diets is needed to determine the dietary sensitivity and it can be frustrating because it is hardly a quick fix.
If these issues have been addressed, there are a number of less common conditions that require more involved testing to diagnose the problem, but weight loss and other symptoms usually accompany these diseases. For obvious reasons you are looking for a quick solution to a very frustrating problem, but I would encourage you to be patient if the initial course of treatment does not result in a cure.
Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to email@example.com or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.