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Diarrhea describes loose or watery stool. All cats and dogs will have bouts of diarrhea in their lifetime, at least a few times per year. The most common causes for these isolated cases of diarrhea are from infection with a virus or bacteria, infestation with a gastrointestinal parasite, or dietary indiscretion. In cases of chronic diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or malabsorption (body cannot properly break down and absorb dietary nutrients). The focus of this article is managing dogs and cats that suffer from chronic or recurring diarrhea.
Diarrhea can be broken down into three different physiological processes.
Osmotic diarrhea means that some substance is drawing water from the body into the bowel, liquefying the stool. Certain medications, food, or poorly absorbed nutrients that have osmotic properties can lead to this type of diarrhea.
Secretory diarrhea occurs when the body is actively releasing water into the bowel. This is the most common type of diarrhea noted with infections or parasites, but can also be seen when a dog or cat is under treatment with certain medications.
Exudative diarrhea refers to the presence of mucus, blood, or even pus in the bowel, and most commonly results from IBS, IBD, and food allergy.
Since malabsorption, IBS, IBD, and food allergy are the most common causes for chronic and recurring diarrhea in dogs and cats, our focus in this article is managing osmotic and exudative diarrhea through diet and supplementation. Success with nutritional and natural supplementation alone varies, depending on the severity of disease and the type of chronic disease that is causing the diarrhea. However, even if prescription medication is necessary to adequately control diarrhea, the nutritional strategies and supplementation outlined in this article, will minimize drug doses and increase the overall safety of the canine or feline patient.
Diets should be free of grassy grains (wheat, corn, barley, and oats) and contain a novel protein source, that is, a protein source the dog or cat has never before consumed. This covers the patient for possible food allergy, as food allergy sensitivities build over time from prolonged, repeated consumption of a protein, most commonly, and animal source protein. For most dogs and cats, that rules out chicken and beef, as these are the most common protein sources found in commercial pet food diets. Good novel protein sources include: rabbit, venison, and duck, as well as an array of less common sources. Another option is to select a prescription hypoallergenic hydrolyzed diet. Hydrolyzed diets cut large chain proteins into smaller, maximally absorbable chains that are unlikely to react with the gut.
For a carbohydrate source for patients with chronic diarrhea, I advise white rice, technically a grain, but unlikely to cause adverse reaction in the gut. Rice is not only a minimally reactive carbohydrate source, but it is also binding, as it is low residue. White rice is not fibrous, so it will not irritate the gut. While still trying to get the diarrhea under control, it is not advisable to feed dogs and cats fiber, as it can further irritate an already inflamed bowel. Fiber in the form of brown rice can be gradually added once the diarrhea is well regulated.
Ideally, you should select preservative free diets to take as much unwholesome ingredients out of the diet as possible. If you have the time, home cooking for the pet is a very good idea, as that gives you 100% control of what the pet consumes. For dogs, I advise 70% rice and 30% meat protein. For cats, I advise 40% rice, 60% meat protein. For cats, once diarrhea is regulated, I would try to gradually raise the protein percentage to 20% rice, 80% meat protein. For both dogs and cats, after the diarrhea is regulated, try gradually transitioning from white rice to brown rice.
The one concerning limitation of home prepared diets with no vegetables, is that they lack well rounded nutrient requirements, especially for dogs. Thus, if you go this route, I would advise maintenance on a high quality pet multivitamin. Your veterinarian should be able to recommend several options.
In order to maximize absorption, I advise maintenance on digestive enzyme therapy. Digestive enzymes breakdown food nutrients into smaller, more absorbable, less reactive forms. This is helpful for all causes of diarrhea, especially malabsorptive syndromes.
Feeding probiotics is another helpful tool for the canine and feline patient with chronic or recurring diarrhea. Naturally occurring bacteria in the gut are essential for proper digestions. This group of “good” bacteria is known as gastrointestinal flora, and can be supplemented in the form of probiotic. Gastrointestinal flora are often crowded out by bad bacteria in cases of IBS, IBD, and malabsorption. Thus, a regular dose of probiotics can be very beneficial in maximizing digestion by helping to maintain a healthy GI flora.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.