Diarrhea in Dogs: Why Is It Common in Shelter Pups?

In shelters, diarrhea is common to the point of being endemic. Most of the time, the best cure is a good home.

Dog puppy doing his toilet
Image Credit: Wavetop/ Getty Images
Last Updated on November 18, 2023 by Dogster Team

A Dogster reader recently posed the following question on the Answers section of this site:

I will be adopting a Sheltie from the shelter tomorrow, but they are telling me that for two days she has been having diarrhea and today she is not eating. They said the vet there did a test on her and it came back negative. They think it is anxiety. She has been in the shelter almost a week and she had all her vaccines on intake. What should I do?

Diarrhea is common to the point of being endemic in shelter dogs. Even the best shelters combine stress and proximity with lots of other dogs (which translates to potential exposure to pathogens) in a fashion that is a recipe for gastrointestinal upset and other minor health problems. There is good news: Although outbreaks of serious disease rarely occur in shelters, most of the dogs that suffer from diarrhea and poor appetite in a shelter will thrive once they’re established in a good home.

As the shelter staff suggested, stress is a major cause of diarrhea. For an example, I need to look no further than my pal Buster. Two years ago we moved, which is famously stressful for people, but it also can cause significant stress for furry household members. Buster developed significant diarrhea and poor appetite, despite the fact that he didn’t have to pack or haul a single box. The household upheaval was enough to make him sick. He got better almost immediately once we settled in to our new place.

If simply moving from one house to another can stress a dog enough to make him sick, imagine what being in a shelter might do. The Sheltie in question probably had a home and family before it wound up in the pound (there aren’t a lot of stray purebreds being picked up by dog catchers these days). So the poor dog started by having her heart broken, and then she was moved to an unfamiliar place with large numbers of unfamiliar people and dogs. The thought of it is enough to make me lose my appetite.

The cure is a good, stable home with plenty of love. Most stress-based gastrointestinal upset in shelter dogs improves after a few days in a new home. An easily digestible diet such as boiled boneless, skinless chicken breast with steamed white rice often helps speed up the process. A medication called metronidazole can help with persistent diarrhea.

A couple of Dogster members also responded, suggesting that the repeated diet changes endured by shelter dogs might be contributing to the symptoms. It absolutely is true that diet changes can cause diarrhea or even more serious gastrointestinal problems; however, in my experience, stress is the number one culprit in cases such as these.

Dogs in shelter situations may also be prone to parasites such as roundworms or coccidia, which can cause diarrhea. Roundworms can spread to humans and cause significant illness, so if you are adopting a shelter dog, it’s important that you confirm the proper parasite treatments have been administered. Be aware that mild, self-limiting viral causes of diarrhea often spread rapidly through shelters as well.

Most seriously, parvovirus — an extremely contagious and very dangerous disease — sometimes spreads in shelter situations. Puppies are most prone to parvo. I am assuming that the negative test performed by the shelter’s vet was for parvo, but you should check this before adopting the dog.

My recommendation, once a negative parvo test is confirmed, is to take the dog home and start giving her love. Talk to your vet about worms and other parasites, and make plans to complete any vaccine series that’s not up-to-date. And, above all, enjoy your new friend.

Featured Image Credit: Wavetop/ Getty Images

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