Creature Comforts

It was 4:30 a.m. and our dachshund, Miriam, then just 6 months old, woke me up by licking my face cursorily before readying herself to jump off the bed.

When in puppy-training mode, this maneuver generally induces a shot of adrenaline to course through my veins, further causing my right hand to grab my glasses, my left hand to grab said puppy and my feet to involuntarily carry me, stumbling in the dark, downstairs to let her outside.

Only the most primitive parts of my brain are functioning at this hour: the “save the carpet” center the “incredibly angry” center, and the “creative cussing” center. I think they’re located in the Hip-pocampus, but I’m not sure.

On this particular morning, at the bottom of the stairs, I stepped in something cold and squishy. In my bare feet. There really is nothing like the feeling of something cold and squishy between one’s toes.

Knowing that the stuff I was standing in was the very stuff I was attempting to make Miriam do outside was overwhelmingly frustrating. When could she have done it? I couldn’t live with a secret pooper. And this – THIS – was too much.

At the most unlikely times, songs pop into my brain. And at this time, it was a hymn – because stepping in poo at 4:30 a.m. is somewhat of a religious experience, what with using God’s name, and all. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Of course, I made up a new verse that was a bit – er – untraditional.

Wyatt and Virgil, our cats, who can see in the dark better than I, were looking on from a safe distance with the keen interest of rubberneckers at the scene of an accident. This, I’m sure, was all very amusing to them. Cats sometimes remind me of Spock on Star Trek. With that unchanging curious expression plastered on their faces, they make it their business to quietly observe humans in their most emotionally unbalanced states. “Curious,” they appear to be thinking, “this behavior seems most illogical.”

I have heard it said that attitude is everything. My husband had a similar experience on his way to bed one night at 12:30 a.m. and felt that stepping in doggie doo was just the beginning of a terrible day, which for him, it was. I took a different tack when it happened to me. I figured I’d gotten the absolute worst experience for the day over with by 4:30 a.m., so the rest of the day had to improve. With that in mind, my day went peachy from there.

I was, however, angry with Miriam all day. She seemed contrite, especially in light of my grumbling about “bad puppies” and “poopy in the house” intermittently. She hung her head low, and looked sufficiently remorseful whenever it seemed to be required of her.

Naturally, I knew she had no earthly idea why she was in trouble. Being human, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with her. It never dawned on me that the accident I stepped in that morning wasn’t hers.

We tend to use circumstantial evidence to convict alleged perpetrators. Sometimes it’s all we’ve got. Unfortunately, it can be misinterpreted. This is as true for a soiled carpet as it is for, say, a vandalized vehicle.

When there are multiple pets in a household, it is easy to blame the most likely suspect, but it’s not always the correct assumption. In my case, I blamed Miriam, because, well, the odds were in favor of it being her by oh, I don’t know, like 100:1.

However, the next morning I realized that it was Walter, not Miriam, who had the accident, and it was because he was sick with diarrhea. I felt a little guilty for berating Miriam throughout the day, but she quickly assuaged me of my guilt by secretly pooping in the house twice the following day – ugh!

As for Walter, we quickly diagnosed him with a parasite called coccidia, which he undoubtedly acquired from his nasty habit of eating rabbit droppings in the yard, and once treatments began, he was all better. Thank goodness!

Nobody likes to talk about this stuff, but diarrhea is exceedingly common in pets. Most people opt to wait out the problem, and rightly so, as most gastrointestinal disturbances are temporary and go away without treatment. Some, however, do not. Problem is, which one does your pet have?

The causes of diarrhea are too numerous to list here, and can run the gamut from ingestion of foreign or toxic material, to infections to cancer. Normally, we don’t bring up the “c” word unless we have ruled out almost everything else. And there’s quite a lot to rule out.

Thankfully, most cases of diarrhea run a short course and resolve with medicines, special food, or a combination thereof. It is those annoying chronic or recurrent cases that vex us. And when it is combined with an animal losing control of its bowels in the house, well, the situation can be rather desperate.

When diarrhea becomes frequent, urgent or bloody, for instance, it is time to do something proactive, and it’s best to get your veterinarian’s advice. This advice can range from “bring him in” to trying various home remedies.

Things that you can try first? Start with a dose of common sense. If a dog or cat has diarrhea, but seems otherwise comfortable, it is best not to feed it for 24 hours. Cruel? Not really. Giving the GI tract a rest is one of the best things you can do to help it heal in the case of diarrhea. Make sure the animal is continuing to drink water and is not vomiting.

After a reasonable fast of at least 24 hours, try starting with very small quantities of a bland diet. We recommend a formulated dog or cat food diet like Hill’s i/d for this purpose, but in a pinch, you can make a short-term substitute at home. Boil some ground meat (hamburger, chicken, turkey, pork), pour off the liquid to remove the grease, and mix one part of this meat to two parts of cooked plain WHITE rice (no whole-grain or brown rice). Feed very small quantities in frequent meals throughout the day.

Veterinarians are required to have a doctor-client-patient relationship before prescribing even over-the-counter medications, so don’t be surprised if you are calling a new veterinarian for advice, but are offered an appointment.

You see, although some over-the-counter human medications can help in some situations, it is important to know that some can make an animal more sick, particularly the very old and very young.

Pepto-Bismol, for instance, is a common remedy prescribed for dogs with diarrhea. However, when given at inappropriate doses or frequencies, it can cause constipation, as can other anti-diarrheals.

Some pets, like rodents – especially hamsters – can become fatally ill with diarrhea. Therefore, your veterinarian will probably want to examine these little guys much sooner than, say, the average dog that ate something disgusting in the backyard.

That being said, I agree with my father, who always has said, “If you’ve got a Great Dane with diarrhea – it’s an emergency.” Wouldn’t want to step in THAT at 4:30 in the morning.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.