By: Donna Solomon, DVM Veterinarian, Animal Medical Center of Chicago
A couple of years ago, I was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show and I saw an episode where the health expert, Dr. Mehmet Oz, was talking about “poop.” I noticed when the cameras panned the audience that they appeared rather excited and at the same time bashful to listen to this discussion. I, on the other hand, thought it was a great topic. Especially since our pets cannot talk, I believe that the appearance of your pet’s stool provides a dramatic amount of information about its overall health.
During every office visit, I ask each client “Does your pet have a normal stool?” Or, “Does your pet have soft or hard stools?” Unless the client is bringing their pet in for explosive diarrhea, most clients think this is an odd question and most honestly don’t really know what their pet’s stool really looks like. Surprisingly, this is especially true of my cat clients. I would have thought they would be the most observant pet owners, but they are not. I think most of my cat clients are just happy that it’s in the litter box and assume it’s normal. This, however, is not always true.
Just like diamonds that are evaluated by the four Cs — color, clarity, carat weight and cut grade — stool samples are evaluated by the following — color, shape, consistency, size, and content. My goal today is to teach you to be a more critical evaluator of your pet’s stool to help you better care for your pet. It is amazing what your pet’s stool sample can tell you about its health.
Before I detail the parameters I evaluate, please do not get alarmed if your pet’s stool deviates from its normal characteristics one day because no pet, or for that matter person, has a perfect stool every time. There are normal variations in your pet’s stool character and it only becomes alarming if it is consistently abnormal. If concerned, please contact your veterinarian for advice.
Below are the five qualities that I use to evaluate your pet’s stool:
The normal COLOR of your pet’s stool is a chocolate-brown. However if you feed your pet food that has food color in it, like the Christmas version of Beneful diet, it may be speckled with green and red colored feces. If the stool color is bright red or streaked with red fluid, I would be concerned that there may be blood present. If the stool color is tarry black, I would be concerned that there is bleeding within the gastrointestinal tract. If the stool is very light in color, like tan, I would be concerned about liver disease. If your pet’s stool consistently varies from its usual color, please contact your veterinarian.
Your pet’s stool SHAPE should be that of a log. If the stool shape is in a small ball or pebble, I would be concerned that your pet is not receiving enough water and may be dehydrated. It is not uncommon for pets with kidney disease to pass small balls of feces because they usually fail to drink enough water to satisfy their hydration status. Older dogs with arthritic hips sometimes are unable to maintain their defecation posture for complete emptying of their rectum. Frequently these arthritic dogs drop small nuggets of stool when they walk or at rest. It is not uncommon for me to add stool softeners, like Miralax, or a fiber supplement, like Metamucil, to make it easier for older arthritic pets to defecate. If the stool sample has no shape what so ever, your pet is suffering from diarrhea.
The CONSISTENCY of a normal stool should be like that of dough. It should be easy to pick up in its entirety and its shape should not be greatly distorted in the process. When you pick up your dog’s stool from the grass, you really should not leave any behind on the grass. For cat owners, you should be able to lift the stool from the litter box without it losing shape. Sometimes this is more difficult to evaluate in cats because their feces are covered in litter but if you look carefully you should see a log formation and not a cow pie. If the stool sample is like pudding or no form at all, your pet is most likely suffering from some intestinal problem — it may be dietary indiscretion (ate something it shouldn’t have), bacterial or viral infection, parasites or food intolerance.
If the stool sample is very firm, I would be concerned about constipation. Especially in young, otherwise healthy cats if you see firm stools, I would be suspicious that they are passing a lot of hair in their feces. I strongly recommend to all pet owners to occasionally place a small sample of their pet’s stool in a clear plastic bag and squish it. If you are unable to squish it easily, the feces is too firm. See if you can see lots of hair in the feces. If you do, this is an indicator that you may need to brush or comb your pet more frequently. Passing hair in the feces can be very painful for both cats and dogs. Consider adding a hairball remedy, like Petromalt, or an enzymatic product, called Capillex, to your cat’s routine to help in the passage of ingested hair. If your dog is passing hard stools, I recommend adding fiber, like Metamucil or bran cereal, to your pet’s diet. Frequently recognized abnormal consistency to your pet’s stool warrants medical attention. Please bring your pet and a sample of your pet’s stool to your veterinarian for evaluation.
The SIZE of your pet’s stool sample should be consistent and relative to the amount of food your pet eats. For instance, the size of a Yorkshire terrier’s stool will be dramatically smaller than a Great Dane’s stool. However, the size of the stool should be consistent for the individual pet. If you have noticed that the volume of your pet’s stool has increased, I would be concerned that your pet may not be processing or digesting the food as well as it should. This pet’s diet may have an unusually high amount of non-digestible products in it (like plant fiber). You may wish to contact your veterinarian about finding an alternative diet. Alternatively, if your pet’s stool volume is reduced, I would be concerned that maybe your pet is not eating as much as it normally has. This is especially revealing for cat owners who fill a bowl with cat food and let their cats graze on it for days. If the stool volume is suddenly reduced, I would be concerned that this cat’s appetite is reduced and may be ill. Another explanation for reduced stool volume would be constipation or a partial gastrointestinal obstruction. If no stool is being passed, I would be concerned that your pet may be suffering from constipation or a bowel obstruction. Please contact your veterinarian to discuss diet, fiber supplementation and stool laxatives.
Really look at the CONTENT of the stool. Does it have anything in it or on it that it shouldn’t? Do you see a clear jelly like substance (mucous) on it? This mucous indicates colitis or inflammation of the colon. Do you see undigested food particles, like rice or carrots, indicating that your pet does not digest them well? Do you see hair or grass in your pet’s stool? Some pets excessively groom themselves when stressed or have allergies. Some pets eat grass when they have an upset gastrointestinal tract. Do you see any blood in the stool? Do you see spaghetti-like noodles wiggling in your puppies stool? Well, those are round worms and yes, you need to take your puppy to the veterinarian to be dewormed. Anything that is abnormally present in the stool should be addressed or avoided.
No pet or person has a perfect stool every time it defecates but consistent variation from its normal bowel movement is a red flag that something is wrong with your pet’s health. Recognizing early changes in your pet’s stool quality will allow you to detect and address a problem early, which increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. Although it may be unpleasant to inspect your pet’s stool, it really provides you with a wealth of information about your pet’s overall health. So, the next time your pet defecates, don’t look away. Take a close look.