I think most of us who enter veterinary medicine have a fantasy that day-to-day life will consist of lofty enterprises: Fixing the broken limb; removing foreign bodies; and healing almost all creatures great and small.
However, after almost one-quarter century as a veterinarian, I’ve come to appreciate the scatological truth: My clinical practice has overwhelmingly been concerned with the poop - and its frequency and consistency - of my patients.
I’ve had clients text me photos of the detritus found in cat boxes; received sandwich bags and a wide assortment of containers such as yogurt and cottage cheese jars filled with the end products of their dogs’ and cats’ digestive processes; and had countless conversations regarding poop, whether there’s too much, too little, deposited where it should not be, as well as the possible causes of those poops that are an unnatural color. I’ve felt the joy when clients have breathlessly announced over the phone (or shouted in ALL CAPS) in an e-mail: HIS POOP IS NORMAL TODAY! I have dutifully passed out copies of The Bristol Stool Chart, guiding clients through the intricacies of Poops 4 (two thumbs up) and, say, 7 (call in the professional carpet cleaners or throw out the rug). Although I have never worked in a clinic where staff birthdays with celebrated with cat box filler cake,” I understand the black humor that involves said cake and a staff member saying, “Give me another piece.”
All kidding aside, paying a bit of attention to a companion animal’s “Number 2” can provide you and your veterinarian with important information. Certainly finding something wiggly in it would signal the need for a lab test to find out what critter(s) are inhabiting your best friend’s intestines. But paying just a bit of attention to form and consistency can help your veterinarian zero in on what portion of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) is out of whack.
There are two broad categories of diarrhea: Small and large intestinal. While it’s sometimes difficult to decide which part of the intestines is affected by a given digestive disorder (diarrhea can have features of both), veterinarians consider small intestinal diarrhea to consist of a normal or increased amount of fecal matter, typically with no blood or mucus. Large intestinal diarrhea is a different animal, so to speak, with small amounts of stool that are often mixed with blood and/or mucus. Most patients with large bowel diarrhea feel well, even if their humans don’t after getting up every hour and making the walk outdoors down three flights of stairs. Pets with small intestinal diarrhea often feel unwell and if they are chronically ill, might lose weight and/or have vomiting from accompanying stomach issues.
To be sure, seeing blood in your pet’s feces is often alarming. However, most times, those red streaks just mean that the colon ― the last portion of the intestines ― is angry. Since Dr. Google is known to engage in misinformation with some degree of frequency, it’s best to get that specimen, and your dog or cat, to the veterinarian for a checkup. There are many reasons for diarrhea, including food allergies (a common diagnosis made by the 16-year-old who stocks the shelves of the local pet supermarket), the aforementioned parasites, and various benign and not-so-benign diseases.
At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, is the inability to produce poops (constipation). Cats in particular have a penchant for developing constipation, particularly as they get older. However, even younger and middle-aged cats can develop constipation and, over time, develop a particularly nasty disease, megacolon, which is just how it sounds: A “bigly,” flaccid, tube that makes it impossible for the patient to defecate. Clients often think that patients who are constipated vomit because they are building up “toxins.” However, the vomiting that constipated patients can have generally results from the fact that all along the colon are fibers that, when stretched, activate the vomiting center of the brain. Fortunately, for cats with megacolon, if medications (stool softeners and a medication that helps to move stool through the GIT) fail, surgery to remove the dilated portion of the colon typically does the trick and restores normal elimination habits.
Clients, particularly those with cats, often have to contend with patients who deposit stool far away from the cat box or wherever they are supposed to go. It's not uncommon for cat slaves to deal with their lords and mistresses depositing poop outside the cat box. While it’s good to rule out common displeasures of cats (less-than-pristine cat box maintenance, using an icky cat box filler, too few boxes for the number of cats, having boxes in noisy areas), inappropriate defecation by cats is generally due to an underlying medical issue. So if you’ve done due diligence, are scooping the boxes daily and have one more cat box than the number of cats in the home, finding kitty poops outside the cat box is your cat’s way of trying to tell you that they really want to go to the veterinarian and get thoroughly evaluated.
I’ll end this piece by addressing a not-uncommon penchant of some dogs: Poop eating. Over the years there have been a plethora of products with some unusual names aimed at curbing this behavior. The bottom line is that some dogs are just naturally born to relish leaving no traces of themselves behind, and the products aren’t very effective. The solution to poop eating is pretty straightforward: The humans need to man (or woman) up and make sure that there are no Tootsie Rolls left, uh, behind.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.