Urgent Care

When Is Dog Diarrhea an Emergency? A Guide for Pet Owners


Diarrhea is a common concern for pet owners, and rightfully so.  While it can be a minor inconvenience for humans, when is diarrhea an emergency for our dogs?  Diarrhea can range from a brief upset tummy to a symptom of a more serious underlying condition. 

This blog post will help you identify the key signs that your dog’s diarrhea might be an emergency and when it’s best to seek veterinary care.

AND – I am including a FREE printable on home remedies for diarrhea at the bottom of this post.

So read on!

Understanding Doggy Discomfort: What is Dog Diarrhea?

Diarrhea refers to loose, watery stools that occur more frequently than usual. 

While unpleasant to deal with, occasional diarrhea is fairly common in dogs and can be caused by a number of things like dietary indiscretion (eating something they shouldn’t have), worms, and infection.

Diarrhea can be a symptom of a serious underlying condition like inflammatory bowel disease or cancer, so it’s important to be aware of the signs that might indicate a trip to the vet is necessary.

What Triggers Dog Diarrhea?

The following conditions or behaviors can cause diarrhea in dogs including but not limited to:

  • Intestinal parasites – roundworms, hookworms, whipworms, Coccidia or Giardia
  • Change in diet or treats
  • Eating certain human foods like pork, french fries and pizza
  • Eating cat litter, garbage, or raw or spoiled food
  • Stress or anxiety – going to the vet or boarding at a kennel
  • Bacterial infections – Salmonella and Campylobacter
  • Viral infections such as parvovirus or distemper
  • Ingestion of foreign objects such as toys, bones, and fabric
  • Medications such as certain antibiotics
  • Pancreatitis
  • Intestinal cancer
  • Liver or kidney disease

Warning Signs: When to Seek Veterinary Care

Understanding when to seek veterinary care for your dog’s diarrhea is essential for their health. Here are some symptoms to watch for:

Persistent Diarrhea: If your dog’s diarrhea lasts for more than 24-48 hours, it’s a sign to see the vet.

Accompanying Symptoms

Vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, or signs of abdominal pain (hunched back or abdomen tender to the touch).

Bloody Diarrhea: Bloody diarrhea, regardless of the color of the blood, is always an emergency and necessitates immediate veterinary care.

Dehydration: Signs of dehydration, such as dry gums, sunken eyes, or excessive panting, alongside diarrhea warrant a vet visit.

Watery Stool: Excessive watery stools indicate rapid fluid loss and dehydration, requiring prompt veterinary attention.

Black Stool: Melena, or black tarry stool can be caused by digested blood in the GI tract.

Straining to defecate: If your dog is trying to poop but only has watery stool, or can’t poop at all, it could be a blockage. This might happen if they swallowed something they shouldn’t have, like a toy, piece of plastic, or a metal object. 

If you suspect a blockage, take your dog to the vet right away.  Even if your dog can eventually poop a little but it’s not normal, it’s best to see a vet within a few hours to be safe.

Taking Action: What to Do When Your Dog Has Diarrhea

Hydration is Key – Offer small amounts of water frequently to prevent dehydration.

Withhold Food (Temporarily) – For 12-24 hours, withhold food to allow the digestive system to rest.

Bland Diet Reintroduction – Gradually reintroduce a bland diet like boiled chicken and white rice when stools start to firm up.

If your dog’s diarrhea doesn’t improve after trying these tips or is accompanied by concerning signs,  contact your veterinarian immediately.

Figuring Out What Is Causing Your Dog’s Diarrhea

The best way to understand why your dog has diarrhea is to visit your veterinarian. They can help pinpoint the cause and recommend the right treatment.

As a veterinarian, I often see cases of diarrhea in dogs that can be traced back to a recent food switch. While introducing new foods is a great way to add variety to your dog’s diet, doing so too abruptly can upset their sensitive digestive system.

If your dog develops diarrhea after a change in food, the best course of action is to switch them back to their original food until their stool returns to normal. Once their tummy feels better, you can try introducing the new food again, but this time at a much slower pace.

Instead of jumping straight into a big mix of new and old food, spread the transition out over a week or two.

Transitioning Your Pet to New Food (Step-by-Step)

1. Start Slowly (2-3 days):

  • Mix a small amount of new food with your pet’s current food. Aim for 25% new food and 75% current food.
  • Monitor your pet for signs of digestive problems (diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite).
  • If your pet has a negative reaction, stop the transition and return to their old food for a week. Then, retry with an even smaller amount of new food (10-15%).

2. Increase New Food Gradually (2-3 days):

  • If your pet tolerates the first step, increase the new food to 50% and decrease the old food to 50%.
  • Monitor your pet for any discomfort again.
  • If issues arise, return to the old food for a week and try a slower transition next time.

3. Mostly New Food (2-3 days):

  • If all goes well, increase the new food to 75% and decrease the old food to 25%.
  • Monitor your pet for another few days.

4. All New Food:

  • If your pet adjusts well throughout the steps, you can finally serve a full bowl of the new food!


  • Throughout the process, keep the total amount of food you give your pet the same.
  • Celebrate your success when your pet transitions smoothly to the new food!

This slower approach gives your dog’s gut more time to adjust to the changes, reducing the chances of another bout of diarrhea.

Here’s How To Prepare For The Vet Visit

Collect a fresh stool sample. Grab a small, clean container like a new ziplock bag or disposable plastic container. Just a small amount is enough, and it’s best if it’s less than 12 hours old and hasn’t been frozen. USE GLOVES!

Write down a list of medications, supplements, or foods that you have given your dog after the diarrhea started (if anything).

Be prepared to answer questions. The vet will likely ask about your dog’s medical history and recent symptoms.

Tests Your Vet Might Recommend

Rectal exam: This checks for tumors in the anal area.

Fecal test: These check for parasites and parvovirus, both common causes of diarrhea.

Blood tests: These can reveal protein loss, anemia, or issues with organ function related to the diarrhea.

SNAP cpL blood test: This checks for pancreatitis, another potential cause of diarrhea.

X-rays or ultrasound: These can show if your dog swallowed something they shouldn’t have, or might reveal abnormalities in the intestines or even cancer.

Endoscopy: This uses a small camera inserted through the mouth to examine the stomach and sometimes the intestines. Biopsies (tiny tissue samples) might also be taken during this procedure.

By working with your vet, you can get your dog the treatment they need to feel better fast.

chihuahua laying down when is dog diarrhea an emergency

Preventing Future Episodes: Keeping Your Dog’s Digestion on Track

Here are some ways dog owners can prevent future episodes of diarrhea:

Dietary Management

As mentioned previously, when switching your dog’s food, do so gradually over a week or two to allow their digestive system to adjust.

Avoid frequent food changes, and opt for a high-quality dog food that meets your dog’s nutritional needs.

Resist the urge to share your meals with your dog. Human food can be difficult for their digestive system to handle and can trigger diarrhea.

Limit treats and choose healthy options that won’t upset your dog’s stomach. Green beans, carrots, and small pieces of apples are great for healthy dog treats.

Maintain Your Dog’s Preventative Care

Schedule regular deworming treatments to keep parasites in check.

Keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date – this protects them from certain viruses that can cause diarrhea.

Stress can cause digestive issues. Provide a calm and predictable environment for your dog and avoid situations that might cause them anxiety.

When walking your dog, avoid letting them scavenge for scraps or feces left behind by other animals. This can introduce harmful bacteria or parasites that can cause diarrhea.

Helping Your Dog Feel Better: Treatments for Diarrhea

Diarrhea can be unpleasant for both you and your dog. The good news is that there are a number of treatment options available to get your furry friend back on track. The best course of action will depend on the cause of the diarrhea, so a visit to your veterinarian is the first step. Here’s a look at some common treatments:


Antibiotics: If bacteria are causing your dog’s diarrhea, your vet might prescribe antibiotics. These medications fight the infection and help reduce inflammation in your dog’s gut.

Probiotics: These supplements act like a good gut bacteria booster. By adding more good bacteria, probiotics help restore the balance in your dog’s digestive system and promote smooth functioning.

Dietary Changes

Bland Diet: Sometimes a break from regular food is just what your dog needs. Your veterinarian might recommend a short-term bland diet that’s easy to digest. This gives your dog’s intestines a chance to heal.

Long-Term Food Changes: If your dog has allergies or sensitivities, a long-term change to a special diet might be needed. This new food will help keep your dog comfortable and healthy.

Deworming Medication: If parasites are the culprit behind your dog’s diarrhea, deworming medication will likely be part of the treatment plan. This medication gets rid of the parasites and helps restore your dog’s digestive health.

Wrapping Up: When Is Dog Diarrhea An Emergency

Understanding what might be causing your dog’s diarrhea can help you determine the best course of action.

Take note of frequency, duration, and blood in the stool. In general, diarrhea that persists for 1-2 days is a good indicator that it’s time to see your veterinarian.

A quick diagnosis and the right treatment can make a big difference in how quickly your dog feels better. With your knowledge and your vet’s expertise, you can help your furry friend bounce back to their usual happy and healthy self.

FREE DOWNLOAD! Doggy Diarrhea Home Remedies

Dr. Georgina Ushi is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctorate from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2009. She currently works in the Tampa Bay area, providing compassionate care to dogs and cats. Alongside her clinical work, Dr. Ushi consults for pet well-being brands and writes health articles for her blog, Pet Health Love. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge to educate and inspire fellow pet owners. Dr. Ushi’s professional interests include emergency and critical care, wildlife medicine, nutrition, and hospice and palliative care.