How to Manage IBD in Dogs

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There are few things that get a dog parent out of bed faster than the unmistakable sound of your pup about to lose his dinner. Just like humans, dogs can vomit and have diarrhea from time to time. But if your dog's tummy issues don't resolve in a day or two, you might need to talk to your veterinarian about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in dogs and related conditions like colitis in dogs.

What Is IBD in Dogs?

IBD is a condition that involves inflammation of the walls of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Signs that your dog may have IBD include frequent vomiting, decreased appetite, weight loss, loose stool, frequent defecation, or liquid or bloody diarrhea. If you notice any of these signs, you should make an appointment with your dog's vet.

The majority of a dog's immune system resides in the GI tract, so imbalances here affect overall health and well-being. Over time, IBD can lead to weight loss, decreased muscle mass and a poor coat.

Black miniature schnauzer lying down on dog bed basket

What Causes IBD in Dogs?

When food is consumed it travels down the esophagus and stops in the stomach, where it undergoes chemical digestion and breaks down into a more liquid substance called chyme. The chyme then passes into the small intestine, where the bacteria that live in the GI tract further break down nutrients so that they can be absorbed by the cells of the small intestine. The last stop in the GI tract is the large intestine, also called the colon. Here, water is absorbed and waste products are excreted so that they can exit the body as feces.

This process can be disrupted — at one or multiple points — by inflammation that alters the organs' ability to perform correctly. Inflammation in the stomach is called gastritis and usually results in vomiting. When the inflammation is in the small intestine it's classified as enteritis; in the colon, it's called colitis. The characteristics of your dog's diarrhea can help the vet determine if his GI issues are caused by enteritis or colitis, and can help in determining the proper treatment.

How Is IBD in Dogs Different From IBS?

The clinical signs of IBD can be similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in people, but the underlying cause is quite different. IBS in people is thought to occur as a result of abnormal movement of the muscle lining in the intestines. In IBD, the actual lining of the intestine is altered by inflammatory cells. The inflammation is an overreaction by the immune system — either to something your dog ate or from a malfunction of the immune system, called an autoimmune disease. This results in discomfort and interferes with the GI tract's ability to properly absorb nutrients.

How Does a Vet Diagnose IBD in Dogs?

To determine if your dog has IBD, their vet will first perform baseline blood work and fecal testing; these tests help assess your dog's overall health and rule out other medical conditions. An ultrasound or radiographs may also be necessary to image the organs of the abdomen. For a definitive diagnosis, a biopsy of the intestinal tissue will need to be examined.

Young female veterinarian in blue uniform inspecting golden retriever in blue colla on table during check-up.

How Do You Manage IBD in Dogs?

Once your dog is diagnosed with IBD, there are several treatment options to choose from that depend on the severity of the condition.

  • A therapeutic meal plan, such as a Prescription Diet Dog Food, is often the first line of defense. Options include easily digestible formulas, novel or hydrolyzed protein formulas and high fiber formulas. Each of these options works in a different way to help the GI tract function more efficiently.
  • Research shows that by maintaining the health of your dog's unique microbiome — an environment consisting of billions of bacteria in the intestines — IBD can be managed without medication. Managing the microbiome is accomplished through the use of prebiotic fibers or postbiotic end products. We are now discovering how nutrition can impact your dog's microbiome and developing formulas that help promote more of the good bacteria and turn off functions of bad bacteria to help improve your dog's GI health.
  • If nutrition alone isn't successful at managing your dog's IBS, then medication may be necessary to help reduce the inflammation of the intestinal walls. In severe cases, a dog with IBD will need to take medicine for the rest of his life. In other cases, medication is used just until the microbiome is rebalanced.

Having a dog who experiences frequent vomiting or diarrhea isn't pleasant for anyone, but there are things you can do to make your dog more comfortable, save the rugs in your home and, most importantly, improve your dog's overall health.

Contributor Bio

Ashley Gallagher, DVM hugging her dog.

Dr. Ashley Gallagher

Dr. Ashley Gallagher is a veterinarian in Salem, Massachusetts. After graduating from University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine she accepted a position into Friendship Hospital for Animals highly competitive, yearlong internship program in Washington, DC. She then spent twelve years at Friendship Hospital for Animals as a staff veterinarian with duties that include seeing appointments as well as performing elective and emergency surgeries. In the past year she and her family have moved to Massachusetts where she took over as Chief of Staff at New England Veterinary Clinic. She lives with her husband, two daughters, Frank the Labradoodle and Vegas the cat.

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