One of the less rewarding parts of dog ownership is cleaning up when your four-legged best friend experiences vomiting or diarrhea. While it's normal for dogs to have these episodes from time to time, if the symptoms last for several weeks, they may have a gastrointestinal disorder known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). A dog's stomach can be upset for many reasons, but there are no known causes yet for IBD. When it comes to this condition, the bowel becomes inflamed after a loss of tolerance to nutrients or bacteria. To prevent weight loss or dehydration that can be a result of vomiting and diarrhea, your dog should see a veterinarian who can begin treatment. IBD can not be cured, but thankfully, managing the symptoms can be effective to keep your dog healthy.
What Is Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is not actually a disease, but a syndrome that causes gastrointestinal problems in dogs leading to vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and even bloody stools. A syndrome is a variety of symptoms that occur together, characterizing a specific disease process. On the other hand, a disease is a process in the body that has a specific cause as well as characteristic symptoms.
While these definitions sound very similar, there are syndromes where a specific causative disease process is not clear. IBD as a syndrome is characterized by chronic irritation to your dog's gastrointestinal tract, but the underlying cause of that irritation can be a variety of things. This inflammation can undermine the ability of your dog's intestines to properly digest and absorb nutrients, leading to malabsorption and general signs of gastrointestinal upset.
Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs
Your dog's IBD will manifest differently depending on what part of their gastrointestinal tract is primarily affected. Dogs may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Different parts of your dog's gastrointestinal system can present various symptoms when affected by IBD. If your dog's IBD mainly affects its stomach, the primary symptom will be vomiting. If the condition mainly affects the intestines, your dog's primary symptom will be diarrhea (either with or without blood or mucous).
Chronic IBD can cause more severe symptoms as it progresses. You may begin noticing that your dog has experienced weight loss, a decreased appetite, fever, or begun acting lethargic (displaying a lack of energy or laying around at home). On the contrary, some dogs may even have an uptake in appetite, eating voraciously while trying to compensate for the malabsorption of food in their intestines.
Causes of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The true underlying cause of your dog's Inflammatory Bowel Disease can range from infection to allergies or even an abnormal immune system. It's important to see a veterinarian for your dog's IBD to be professionally diagnosed before treatment can begin. The following are possible causes of this condition:
- Infection: Infectious agents that can cause IBD can include bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, protozoa (single-celled organisms) such as Giardia, and intestinal parasites.
- Food allergies: Allergens that cause IBD in dogs are most commonly from protein sources as opposed to wheat and other carbohydrates. Your veterinarian may recommend changing the primary protein in your dog's diet and monitoring any changes that occur after switching food.
Diagnosing Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs
Inflammatory Bowel Disease can only be definitively diagnosed by looking microscopically at biopsies taken from your dog's intestinal lining. A veterinary pathologist will look for inflammatory changes in the intestinal tissue samples, the hallmark of IBD. This process often requires general anesthesia to obtain the samples through abdominal surgery.
Since taking biopsy samples is an invasive procedure, your veterinarian will likely begin the diagnosis by performing tests to rule out other problems. If your dog has experienced vomiting or diarrhea—even if it's chronically intermittent—your vet won't be scheduling a surgery the next day. Instead, veterinarians first run more basic testing such as blood work, radiographs, and examinations of stool samples.
Infections and intestinal parasites, metabolic disease, food allergies, or intestinal bacterial imbalance can cause similar symptoms to IBD. Your veterinarian will also check for diseases like pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, or colitis.
If these tests do not help your veterinarian diagnose a specific disease, they may opt to treat your dog's GI upset with 'standard GI therapeutics', including fluid therapy (whether that's fluid given intravenously through an IV catheter or subcutaneously under the skin), medications, and instructions for a bland diet at home. If this doesn't completely resolve your dog's GI signs, then your veterinarian may start to pursue diagnosing and treating for IBD.
Just as in people, Inflammatory Bowel Disease in dogs, unfortunately, can not be cured. Instead, your veterinarian will develop a treatment plan to manage your dog's IBD symptoms. This treatment plan can consist of medications, a special diet, or a combination of the two.
Your vet may prescribe your dog a corticosteroid like prednisone and/or an antibiotic such as metronidazole to help with inflammation and bacterial overgrowth in your dog's intestines. They may also recommend either prescription or homemade dog food to ease your dog's GI signs while also providing a complete and balanced diet. Ensuring your dog consumes the right nutrients on a consistent schedule is essential to prevent weight loss and dehydration.
Treatment plans may need to be adjusted over time. Your veterinarian will monitor your specific dog's response and adjust treatment as necessary to help relieve any discomfort. Inflammatory Bowel Disease can affect dogs with various symptoms that require different medications or dietary changes. It's also important to remember that the cause of one dog's IBD may be very different than others. Keeping your dog healthy with this condition is a long-term process that often takes a few tries to find the best solution.
Prognosis for Dogs With Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Once your dog has been diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, your veterinarian will likely recommend check-ups to ensure treatments are adjusted properly (even if your dog no longer shows symptoms). Thankfully, most dogs that are diagnosed with IBD can live full, happy lives with minimal discomfort once the symptoms are managed. Owners should adhere to diet plans for their dogs under their vet's supervision and schedule a veterinary exam if they notice anything unusual or new symptoms begin to present.
How to Prevent Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Because Inflammatory Bowel Disease can have so many different causes, there are no guaranteed ways for dog owners to prevent their pets from developing this condition. Instead, owners should be aware of the symptoms of IBD and contact their veterinarians if any signs are observed. Many dogs are likely to consume things they shouldn't—whether it be parts of toys, plants, and even small insects or animals outside—and this can often result in vomiting or diarrhea. However, if you suspect that your dog's symptoms are related to a larger gastrointestinal problem like IBD or other diseases, your veterinarian can help.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs. Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.