Understanding the Gut’s Response to Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs
Your dog is sluggish, withdrawn, and avoids his food bowl — is it inflammatory bowel disease?
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)
Is your pup a bit of a foodie but struggles with chronic vomiting and diarrhea? Well, they may have an unwanted party guest called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It’s a tricky little syndrome that can wreak havoc on your dog’s gastrointestinal tract, and getting a proper diagnosis can seriously feel like trying to find a needle in a haystack. But don’t fret! Read up on everything you need to know, from the symptoms and diagnosis of IBD in dogs to how to treat and manage it with medication and through a holistic approach.
What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs?
Inflammatory bowel disease in dogs is a chronic condition where a dog’s digestive tract becomes inflamed, leading to all sorts of tummy troubles. It’s not just one disease but a whole gang of annoying conditions that cause inflammation in your pup’s digestive tract. And when I say inflamed, I mean like a raging party with red cups everywhere.
There are various things that can trigger inflammatory bowel disease in dogs, such as food allergies, infections, or immune system issues. A dog’s symptoms depend on where the inflammation lives, which can be anywhere from the stomach to the rectum.
Mucus and/or blood in the stool
What Causes IBD?
The exact causes of inflammatory bowel disease in dogs are not fully understood. Broadly speaking, the dog’s immune system overreacts, perhaps to diet, parasites, or bacteria. The visiting immune cells then send signals called cytokines, which create more inflammation.
Some breeds, such as German Shepherds, Boxers, Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers, Weimaraners, Basenjis, and Bulldogs, may also have a higher incidence of IBD. However, inflammatory bowel disease can affect any breed, including mixed breeds.
Genetics (breed predisposition)
Microbiome disruption can be the result of poor genetics, poor early nutrition, and/or overmedication with antibiotics or other microbe-affecting medications.
Diet (intolerances or sensitivities)
Protein sensitivities can change over time. Egg, chicken, grains, beef and fish are common culprits.
Environmental triggers (pollutants, toxins, stress)
In addition to exposure to toxins in their home or yard, even emotional distress such as worry, anger or fear can upset digestion.
Infections (and other gastrointestinal diseases)
Other sources of GI issues, including colitis, chronic giardia affecting dogs, or food allergies, can cause GI stress.
How is Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs Diagnosed?
Diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease in dogs begins with blood work, which may show protein loss, anemia, dehydration, altered B12/cobalamin and folate levels, elevated liver enzymes, and sometimes pancreatitis. For a definitive identification, a GI biopsy is the gold standard.
Histological views, thin slices of stained tissue, are collected via endoscopic or surgical biopsy. They might be small, but they reveal a lot, particularly about the kinds of inflammatory cells that are cramming the villi and crypts — the steep hills and valleys — of the GI tract. Crowds of lymphocytes, plasma cells, eosinophils, macrophages and/or neutrophils cause the bowel to thicken, and hinder its motility. They also block the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients, properly manufacture mucus to line the tract, and originate hormonal signals.
When possible surgical risk or cost is a factor, an abdominal ultrasound can provide a presumptive diagnosis; thickened bowel loops usually indicate inflammatory bowel disease in dogs. (In rare cases, they may also indicate cancer, such as lymphoma; it can be difficult to suss out the subtleties between it and inflammatory bowel disease in dogs on ultrasound. I
It’s important to be sure that lymphoma’s not in play because starting prednisone — a common steroid used to treat IBD — without ruling out lymphoma can make an accurate diagnosis difficult later and can create future chemotherapy resistance.)
Medical Treatment Options
Assuming that inflammatory bowel disease is the most likely cause of your dog’s GI problems, there are definitely things you can do to help your friend feel better.
Change Their Diet
For mild cases, diet change is often the first step. An easily digestible, low-residue diet or a novel-protein food, such as duck, rabbit, fish, or venison, is a good place to begin. Another option is to feed a hydrolyzed-protein diet, in which the proteins are already broken down and can thus slide unrecognized past the immune system. Lower-fat diets may help as well, as fat can be hard to digest.
Dogs who do not respond completely to diet change may be placed on steroids, antibiotics, and, sometimes, stronger immunosuppressive drugs like cyclosporine or azathioprine. Each medication comes with its own list of possible side effects, so the goal is to try to taper the medication to the lowest effective dose. Many veterinarians will also deworm dogs with suspected IBD to cover all possible inflammatory triggers.
Holistic Treatment Options
A dog who isn’t tolerating medications will often urinate in the house, and changes will be seen in their liver-related bloodwork. In those cases, vets still have holistic tools to use. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) includes acupuncture, Chinese herbs, food therapy, and tui na (a form of therapeutic canine massage). Rather than treating a dog for a list of symptoms, TCVM creates a picture of their health based on patterns. From indicators such as the dog’s tongue color and coating, pulse strength and character, time of day of the signs, personality, and preferences for cold or warm places, a TCVM vet develops an individualized treatment plan.
For dogs suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, daily pre-and probiotics, such as Herbsmith Microflora, can help realign proper bacterial balance in the gut, and B12 shots given under the skin can help replace lost cobalamin.
Herbal formulas for chronic early-morning diarrhea are different than those used to treat acute bloody diarrhea. These specifics matter. Formulas for acute diarrhea may only be used for a week, but herbs for chronic GI issues are usually given for one to three months. It’s important to use high-quality, domestically manufactured formulas from suppliers like Jing Tang Herbal to guarantee low toxicity and uniformity. Herbs are medicine, with possible side effects and interactions, so it’s best to have a TCVM vet prescribe the correct formula for your dog.
Combining acupuncture and Chinese herbs is another powerful way to assist in the resolution of both acute and chronic GI issues. Acupuncture points are located in areas where nerve endings, blood vessels, mast cells, and lymphatics are concentrated, and activating those points helps to strengthen the immune system, lower inflammation, increase circulation and reduce pain. Studies have documented that point stimulation also releases neurotransmitters such as beta-endorphin and serotonin.
A TCVM vet will choose a series of points to relieve pain, vomiting, and poor appetite, as well as to address heat in GI tract (blood) or a yang deficiency (warm-seeking). Thin, single-use, sterile needles are placed at specific sites and are left in place from one to 30 minutes. The number of needles used depends on the dog’s age, personality, and level of disease. Most dogs relax, yawn, and even fall asleep after about 10 minutes. As with any chronic disease, it takes time to steer recovery in the right direction. For acupuncture, a good place to start is three to five treatments spaced at 10- to 14-day intervals.
When all goes well, combining Western and Eastern medical treatments results in weight gain, eagerness to eat, and a reduction in GI pain. Not to mention the return of those wonderful, broad doggie smiles and whole-body tail wags.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs and Cats
- Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP
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Sara Greenslit, DVM
Sara Greenslit, DVM, CVA, is a small-animal veterinarian and writer who lives and practices in Madison, Wisc.