Constipation in Dogs

Constipation is when your dog has infrequent and difficult defecation, that is, they are having trouble doing their ‘twos’!

If constipation progresses to the point where no defecation occurs, this is referred to as obstipation which, if left unattended, can be life threatening.

There are many causes of constipation, and although initial treatment with an enema is often successful, the underlying cause should be determined – both to prevent constipation recurring, and to determine whether the constipation is just a sign of another more serious disease process.

What are the signs of constipation?

You may observe that your dog is straining excessively to defecate, exhibits pain while straining, or is passing either small amounts of or no faeces at all. Sometimes a small amount of liquid may be passed, which is commonly misinterpreted as diarrhoea.

What are the causes of constipation?

Some common causes include:

  • Dietary factors – bones, indigestible material such as plastic or plants, hair.
  • Pain on defecation – spinal pain, arthritis, anal sac disease or a foreign body in the rectum such as a sharp piece of cooked bone.
  • Obstruction of the large intestine – tumour, stricture, foreign body, a fractured pelvis that has healed abnormally to reduce the size of the pelvic canal through which the colon passes, or other masses pushing onto the colon e.g. enlarged prostate.
  • Dysfunction of the colon due to other diseases or nerve problems.
  • Behavioural issues – inactivity or a lack of house-training.
  • Perineal hernia – a condition which results in the rectum deviating into a hernia adjacent the anus.
  • Some drugs.
  • Inability to squat to defecate, often due to limb and nerve problems.

What is the treatment for constipation?

If your pet is straining to defecate, it is best to bring it to the veterinary clinic. Don’t administer your pet over-the-counter human suppositories, laxatives or enemas unless advised by your vet. Some of these can be quite toxic, and injury may occur. Your veterinarian will resolve constipation by giving an enema. In some cases, the dog needs to be sedated or anaesthetised to allow large amounts of soapy water to be used as the enema, and the hard faeces to be manually broken down.

Physical examination may prompt the vet to take radiographs (X-rays) to check for more serious intestinal problems. Long-term constipation may progress to obstipation (blockage). At this stage, the pet will be unable to pass any stool at all, and will quickly become depressed, dehydrated, and likely will go off food as well. If left unattended, this can be life threatening and will stretch the lower bowels significantly, thus potentially damaging the muscular wall.

Ongoing treatment and prevention depend on the specific cause of constipation, but often includes the addition of fibre in the form of psyllium to the diet to make the faeces softer and easily deformable. Laxatives may be required.

Can I prevent constipation?

Some pets become constipated after eating bones, so you can try feeding softer bones, such as oxtail, brisket (remove the excess fat) or riblets for smaller dogs and make sure the bones are raw, not cooked.

Some animals cannot tolerate bones at all. Instead, you can use rawhide bones, pigs’ ears or similar products as treats that are digested more easily. Ensure your pet also has access to plenty of fresh water at all times and discuss the best diet for your dog with your veterinarian.

By Dr Julia Adams BVSc

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