Constipation is not a pleasant experience – it’s something pet owners want to prevent their pets from experiencing. What’s interesting is constipation is not the only reason dogs and cats strain to go to the bathroom. Straining can be due to constipation, but also diarrhea, or an inability to urinate. There are also some less common reasons for straining to defecate which include intestinal blockage, infected anal glands, tumors, megacolon, and more.

The first species to discuss is cats. If a male cat strains to go to the bathroom, it is a life-threatening emergency. Most commonly, these cats have a urinary bladder obstruction. These kitties need to get to the veterinarian ASAP.

Bladder infections in dogs and female cats can also look like straining to go to the bathroom. The infection and irritation of the bladder leads to constant trips to the bathroom. Just one drop of urine in an infected bladder sends the dog or cat back to the bathroom. Depending on the degree of irritation and pet’s posture, this can sometimes be mistaken for “constipation.” In true constipation, a finger inserted into the pet’s rectum would find a very dry, hard piece of stool close to the exit. Or, after much straining, a very dry, hard piece of stool would be deposited by the pet.

While constipation can be a common reason dogs and cats strain, diarrhea is another. Really. Diarrhea. To many, at first thought, it doesn’t make sense to strain with diarrhea. Not meaning to be too graphic, but we’ve all had those number two events that when the event is done our bottom is raw; it even burns. As humans, we know what’s going on and can address the issue. Dogs and cats can’t quite put it together to know that their intestines are empty and yet there’s still an urgent feeling – these animals will continue to hunch yet nothing comes out. That urgent feeling means that their diarrhea burns. “Burning butthole” syndrome can be due to bacterial overgrowth in the intestines, or pH in balance in the intestines – these are often caused by diet. In my experience, diarrhea and “burning butthole” is more common than diarrhea.

Interestingly, in cases of both garden-variety constipation and diarrhea, pure pumpkin works to normalize the intestines. Constipated pets will have normal, soft stool; pets with diarrhea will become normal, soft, but not liquid, stool. Unless it is fall, pumpkin is most easily found in the canned food section, be sure to avoid pumpkin pie filling.

While I call it garden-variety diarrhea or constipation, neither one of these is truly garden-variety. As pet owners, we tend to give a fair amount of notice to the stool of our dogs and cats. This is because the observing the feces is an easy, regular indicator. Other health indicators, such as pain or fever, are not as easy to recognize.

It is a bit of an old wives tale that dogs and cats get either diarrhea or constipation with diet change. Certainly, we’ve seen many cases where a small change in diet creates intestinal distress. But if these animals had healthy intestines, they really should be able to adapt to dietary changes. Consider our own dietary habits as case in point: for the most part, we humans eat different foods from meal to meal. When our intestines are healthy, our stools remain unchanged. When either our intestines are unhealthy, or we’ve eaten something particularly disagreeable, then we get constipation or diarrhea. The same should be true for pets: healthy intestinal tracts should adapt to dietary changes therefore should not get diarrhea or constipation with small dietary changes.

A big culprit leading to constipation is insufficient water intake, regardless of what species we’re talking about. It’s very common for pet owners to say that there’s water available at all times and yet their animal has hard stool.

Now it’s time to talk about diet. Dry pet food is, well, dry. Obviously. It is so dry that 98% or more of the moisture has been removed. But consider our human diet. Unless we eat only toaster pastries and chips, our diets have a lot of liquid in it. Consider soup. Consider chicken. Or a salad. Most of these foods range from 40 to 80% water content. In kibble-based diets, dogs and cats must reconstitute the food before it can be digested. Which means that water intake needs to be increased over what a similar animal would drink on a real food diet.

So before reaching for the laxatone, consider adding real food to your dog or cat’s diet. Add the healthy stuff. The part we do eat, not the part we don’t. For cats, this could include chicken, cooked hamburger, even eggs. For dogs, you could offer the same, and even vegetables. (No grapes, no raisins, no chocolate, no raw onions, no cooked bones.) Want to really challenge your perceptions? Switch to an all real food diet. For those who aren’t ready for that drastic step, again, let’s top dress with some real food. Their poop will get better, not worse.

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