Often we get questions from clients about what things they can do for their pets prior to coming to the clinic or when problems occur over the weekend. These questions frequently revolve around the consistency of the pets’ stools. They are either too soft or too hard. People have heard many options for managing these problems at home and frequently this involves pumpkin. Pumpkin seems to be the wonder-food which will resolve both diarrhea and constipation in pets. But what does it really do?
Pumpkin, and most fruits and vegetables, have a mixture of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber (like pectin) has a high water holding capacity and will attract water to feces. Because of this high water holding capacity, soluble fiber can help with both constipation and diarrhea. If the stools are dry, the extra water will make them softer. If they are soft, the fiber will help give them shape. Insoluble fiber (like cellulose) gives bulk to the stool and can promote colonic motility.
But, there are limitations to all of this in the production of a nice, normal stool.
If we are trying to treat diarrhea with the addition of fiber to the diet, the response will vary greatly depending on the type of diarrhea (acute vs chronic), the cause of the diarrhea (bacterial, parasites, diet sensitivity or indiscretion) and the type of fiber. For example, acute diarrhea often responds best to a low-fiber, highly digestible diet. As well, response to dietary additives is highly variable among individuals.
So, back to pumpkin. the actual amount of fiber in pumpkin is low. It is about 90% moisture and 3% fiber. It is not very high in calories; about 83kcals/cup or 5kcals/tbsp. Pumpkin is generally quite palatable for both dogs and cats and it can have benefits for both diarrhea/soft stool and constipation/hard stool. Other sources of fiber include psyllium (in Metamucil), other squashes, peas, barley and apple.
In cats, pumpkin is sometimes used as a palatable fiber source with high moisture content to help with constipation, particularly in older cats with some degree of kidney disease. You need to be careful that there is good gut motility present or the increased stool bulk can actually make the constipation worse. In these cases, a low-fiber diet will be a better choice. Pumpkin can help some dogs with a chronic, recurrent diarrhea to have a better form to their stools. Often it takes some trial and error to find the best type and amount of fiber that works for each animal.
Many prescription pet foods try to address these issues with specialized formulations. These range from high fiber to low residue diets and again sometimes it takes a few tries to find the one that will work the best for the individual pet.
Ideally, you can work with your veterinarian to find the best combination of food/fiber that works best for your pet. In an emergency situation or on Saturday afternoon when the hospital has just closed and your dog starts up with some soft stool, sometimes the best thing you can do is fast your dog for 12 to 24 hours and then start him on a bland diet for the next day or two. Of course, if there is blood in the stool or if your pet is acting lethargic or things are just getting worse, it might be best to have him seen by an emergency clinic. If you are ever in doubt as to what is the best thing to do for your pet, we are always available to answer your question.