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What is my pet's poop telling me?

We really do love our pets—enough that we will pick up their feces and even examine it for signs our furry companion is not feeling well. What seems like an insignificant pile of waste can tell you a lot about your pet’s overall health. And, if things don’t look quite right, your veterinarian can perform a more in-depth evaluation to determine the cause. Even if your pet seems healthy, the Companion Animal Parasite Council recommends that every pet have fecal analyses performed four times during the first year of life, and twice a year as an adult.

You should become familiar with the normal appearance of your pet’s feces. Feces should be chocolate brown in color and formed into cylindrical pieces that hold their shape when picked up. If feces are softer than normal, mucousy, or increased in volume, your pet’s body may be telling you she is feeling under the weather. The most important warning sign is the presence of blood, which can indicate severe inflammation.

If your pet’s poop looks abnormal, take your pet, along with a recent, fresh sample, to your AAHA-accredited family veterinarian. During the appointment, a fecal analysis will be performed to look for parasites and bacteria that could be causing a gastrointestinal (GI) upset, including:

  • Roundworms — Ascarids, or roundworms, live in the intestines and pass eggs in the feces that can be transmitted to other animals. A fecal floatation technique is used to detect eggs that indicate your pet has an active roundworm infection.
  • Hookworms — Adult hookworms attach to a pet’s intestinal lining to ingest blood, and in severe cases can cause bloody diarrhea, dehydration, and life-threatening anemia. The worms pass eggs in the feces of infected dogs and can also be detected by fecal floatation.
  • Whipworms — Whipworms live in the intestinal tract and can cause diarrhea, weight loss, dehydration, anemia, and death in severe cases. Eggs are shed in the feces, and can be observed during a fecal floatation.
  • Giardia — Giardia is a single-celled parasitic organism that infects the GI tract and causes severe diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Giardia cysts are passed in the feces, can infect most animal species, as well as humans, and are identified by examining a fresh fecal smear or fecal floatation under a microscope.
  • Coccidia — Another single-celled parasite, coccidia, are transmitted through the feces to infect other animals, and can be detected by fecal floatation.
  • Tapeworms — Tapeworms attach to the intestinal lining and absorb nutrients from a pet’s GI tract. They rarely cause noticeable clinical signs, but they shed rice-like segments that often can be seen in the feces or under a pet’s tail.
  • Bacteria — The GI tract is full of beneficial bacteria that help maintain GI health, but pathogenic bacteria can invade and upset the normal flora. Your veterinarian can evaluate the type and amounts of different bacterial species residing in your pet’s intestines with a stained fecal smear.

Picking up your pet’s waste is important, since intestinal parasites can infect other animals, and possibly people. Parasitic infections often cause clinical signs like diarrhea and vomiting, but not all pets become sick, so regular fecal analysis is critical to ensure your pet is not shedding dangerous parasites or bacteria into the environment.

Diarrhea can indicate that your pet is not feeling well, but a lack of feces can be even more concerning, especially if accompanied by vomiting. A GI obstruction occurs when a pet eats an object that gets stuck in the stomach or intestines, and surgery is typically needed to open the GI tract and remove the foreign body. Veterinarians have surgically removed toys, socks, corn cobs, rocks, and more from pets. An obstruction that is not removed quickly or that perforates the intestinal lining can be fatal.

The next time you scoop up your pet’s poop, pause for a moment and quickly determine whether it looks normal. Also, remember to take a fresh sample on your pet’s next veterinary visit to ensure she is parasite-free.