What Should My Dog’s Poop Look Like?
Since dogs can’t talk, we spend a great deal of time trying to interpret other signs of their health. How is he acting? How is his appetite? We perform exams, take histories, evaluate blood samples. Also, we check their poop. This gives us a tremendous number of clues as to a dog’s digestive and overall health, which is one of the reasons the techs always ask you, “Did you bring a sample?” Walk into the back area of any clinic and you will see a neatly arrayed line of stool samples waiting to be evaluated; it’s as much a part of a dog’s standard exam as having your blood pressure taken at your own doctor.
As owners, you probably have more familiarity with your dog’s poop than you’d like to think about, after all, you’re cleaning it up every day. This means you’re well attuned to both subtle and not-so-subtle variations in your dog’s stools. An owner whose dog is suffering a bad case of diarrhea wastes little time calling us once the dog has a 2 a.m. accident on the beige carpeting, but that same person may not be sure what to do if the stools are suddenly a different color. Or a different volume.
Is there such a thing as a stool emergency? Are some variations in a pet’s stool normal? And most importantly, what the heck do vets do when we get those little Dixie cup samples handed over to us? We must be checking for something, right?
The Four C’s of Poop
You can evaluate poop much like a diamond. I’m not saying you want to, but you could. When an eagle-eyed shopkeeper examines a fine gem under a loup, he or she is using a set list of criteria to grade it. We do the same to stool with a slide and our microscope.
Color: Under normal circumstances, the stool is a chocolate-brown color- hence the many Tootsie roll analogies. During normal digestion, the gallbladder releases bile to aid in the breakdown of food. Bilirubin is a pigment in bile that affects stool color. The stool may have some minor deviations in color due to diet, hydration, or dyes in his or her food, but you shouldn’t see a substantial amount of changes. Some of the abnormal color patterns are:
- Black stool: bleeding high up in the digestive tract may result in tar-colored stool
- Red streaks: this indicates bleeding in the lower digestive tract
- Grey or yellow stools: may indicate issues with the pancreas, liver, or gallbladder
If abnormal colors persist for more than two stools, call your veterinarian.
Consistency: You may be surprised to know that some veterinarians use a numerical system to score the consistency of a pet’s stool. The fecal scoring system assigns a value to the stool from 1 to 7, where 1 represents very hard pellets and 7 is a puddle. The ideal stool is a 2: a firm segmented piece, caterpillar shaped, that feels like Play-Doh when pressed. Formless stool means the large intestine is not properly re-absorbing water; hard stool can be painful to pass and may indicate dehydration. The ideal dog stool is the consistency of Play-Doh, easily squishable, and hold its form without melting into the grass. I tell owners that one super-soft or super-hard stool isn’t a cause for concern, especially if the pet is normal otherwise, but if it persists for more than a day, give us a ring.
Content: There’s only one way to get to the inside of a poop, and that means dissecting it. We pay our staff to do this so you don’t have to, but some people just really need to know for themselves, and I salute those determined pet owners. The inside of a stool shouldn’t look any different from the rest of it, but here’s some abnormal things you may find:
- Worms: long and skinny roundworms, or little rice-shaped tapewormsegments. Remember, stool that has been outside for hours may have little creatures in it that weren’t there at the outset, so it’s important to know if this is a fresh sample.
- Foreign materials: grass, sock bits, plastic, rocks. Pica, the eating of non-food items, is not uncommon in dogs, and sometimes you don’t know that your dog is digging into the trash until you find a bit of Ziploc in the stool.
- Fur: big clumps of fur in the stool indicate overgrooming, which can happen secondary to stress, allergies, skin disease, or even boredom.
Coating: Poop should not have a coating or a film over it. If you’re picking up your pet’s stool off the grass, there shouldn’t be any sort of trail left behind. A coating of mucous often accompanies large bowel inflammation, and often occurs concurrently with diarrhea. Small streaks of bright red blood may also show up on occasion, usually secondary to straining to defecate. I often take a “wait and see” approach with a single red streak, but any more than that and I’d like to see the pet in the office.
Fortunately, for all the uncomfortable and unpleasant sequelae of poop issues, the vast majority resolve on their own in 24 hours. To quote the great Charles Dickens, “there’s more of gravy than of grave” in most cases, much to most everyone’s relief. If a pet is eating, drinking, and behaving normally otherwise, giving it a day to sort itself out should be fine. If he or she stops eating, seems depressed, or continues to have digestive symptoms after a day, it’s time to call the vet, as we have lots we can do to get things back on track.