Most dog owners spend a lot of time picking up poop, but not a lot of time thinking about it. It’s gross, but you should really be paying attention to your dog’s business. Knowing what’s normal will help you spot potential health conditions before they become serious.
First, let’s look at what’s healthy for poop. Most importantly, your dog’s poop should be generally predictable. Feeding mostly a specific food to a specific dog at a specific time should have the same result every day. The color of your dog’s poop should be consistent and brown but his exact shade will vary with his diet. Things like carrots, pumpkin, or sweet potato in his diet can create a slight orange tint, and food coloring in some dog foods can make all kinds of colors come up. If your dog’s diet hasn’t changed, then the color of his poop shouldn’t be changing either. The consistency should be firm and hold its shape, but not too hard to squish with your (plastic bag covered) fingers. It should make a nice log that’s consistent and in line with the size of your dog. Puddles or little round pebbles are bad. It doesn’t have to smell good, but it shouldn’t reek from down the block either. If you poke through it with a stick now and then there shouldn’t be any undigested bits in there.
Usually, an abnormal poop or two isn’t anything to worry about unless there is a lot of blood or a potential poisoning. Poop that looks like raspberry jam and black sticky stools both indicate significant bleeding and they mean you should go to the vet immediately. If a change in your dog’s poo makes you think he may have gotten into something poisonous (like undigested pieces of rat poison) you should also get to the vet now, before more damage can be done. Otherwise, dogs are a lot like people. I don’t go to the doctor for every bit of intestinal upset, but if it goes on too long it’s time to go in. A restricted bland diet for a day or two will often help things clear up on their own. “Too long” will vary depending on the size, age, and health of your dog and the severity of the problem. A large healthy adult dog probably isn’t in danger from two days of moderate diarrhea, but a puppy or small dog could quickly become dehydrated or dangerously weakened. Learn to assess your dog for dehydration and other signs of trouble and remember that you can always call your vet to ask if you need to come in. There are many bacterial infections dogs can pick up from drinking out of puddles or getting into garbage that they may need antibiotics or supportive therapy to recover from.
Constipation or chronically loose stools can eventually lead to impacted and infected anal glands on top of the original problem, so it’s important not to let those types of problems go. Some dogs will need their glands expressed regularly no matter what, but if their poop is healthy, most dogs won’t. It may be as simple as adding a fiber supplement or probiotic but it’s important to get it checked. Constipation can be an early indicator of kidney disease or arthritis in the rear legs and spine. Sometimes loose stools are caused by chronic stress or liver problems.
Poops that are mucus covered and loose intermittently for no discernible reason usually indicate that some type of intestinal parasite is irritating the intestines. Monthly heartworm preventatives usually kill some types of intestinal parasites but not all. You’ll need to bring a stool sample to your vet to determine the type of wormer you need. Sometimes no worms show up but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Your vet may prescribe a wormer anyway if something your heartworm preventative doesn’t cover is common in your area. Wormers will almost always cause loose stools, but they should clear up in a few days.
A common concern is exercise or excitement related diarrhea. This is the same as the runner’s diarrhea people get. These aren’t usually anything to worry about as long as your dog doesn’t seem to be suffering. I usually only “count” the first poop on a walk unless there’s blood or mucus in a runny poop that happens after exertion. If it’s difficult for you to clean up, try not feeding your dog for several hours before an event or adding a fiber supplement, but many dogs are just going to get the runs if they’re sufficiently active or excited.