Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs

dog eating from his bowl.indoor
Carol Yepes / Getty Images

One of the tasks any dog owner will tell you they don't relish is cleaning up dog vomit or diarrhea. Dogs can have episodes of vomiting and diarrhea for a variety of reasons, but if your dog is suffering from bouts of either for several weeks, they may have a gastrointestinal disorder known as Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD).

What Is IBD in Dogs?

Irritable Bowel Disease, or IBD in dogs, like in people, is actually not a disease process but a syndrome. A syndrome is a variety of symptoms that occur together and, thus characterize a specific disease process while a disease is a specific process in the body that has a specific cause as well as a specific characteristic of 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 whole host 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.

What Causes IBD in Dogs?

The true underlying cause of your dog's IBD can range from infection, allergies, an abnormal immune system, and even genetics. 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. Allergens that cause IBD in dogs are most commonly from protein sources as opposed to wheat and other carbohydrates

What Are the Symptoms of IBD in Dogs?

Your dog's IBD will manifest differently depending on what part of their gastrointestinal tract is primarily effected. If your dog's IBD mainly effects their stomach, their primary symptom will be vomiting. If their IBD mainly effects their intestines, then their primary symptom will be diarrhea, either with or without blood or with and without mucous. If your dog's IBD is more chronic, as it progresses you may start to see weight loss, a decreased appetite, lethargy (laying around more), or a fever. For some dogs, though, you may actually see an uptake in appetite, with them eating voraciously to try and compensate for the malabsorption of food in their intestines.

How Is IBD in Dogs Diagnosed?

IBD 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 your dog's intestinal tissue samples, the hallmark of IBD. Obviously getting biopsy samples is an invasive procedure, oftentimes requiring general anesthesia to obtain them through abdominal surgery. If your dog goes to the vet for vomiting or diarrhea, even if it's chronically intermittent, your vet won't be scheduling your dog for surgery the next day. Instead, your vet may first run more basic testing such as blood work, radiographs, and looking at a stool sample. While these tests can't diagnose IBD, they can rule out other common causes of GI signs in dogs, such as pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, colitis, and intestinal foreign bodies. If these tests all come back unremarkable your vet 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 vet may start to pursue diagnosing and treating for IBD.

Treatment of IBD

Unfortunately IBD in dogs, just as in people, cannot 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 such as prednisone and/or an antibiotic such as metronidazole to help with inflammation and bacterial overgrowth in your dog's intestines. They may also recommend a special diet, either homemade or prescription, to ease your dog's GI signs while also providing a complete and balanced diet. The treatment plan for your dog may have to be adjusted based on your dog's response. This is because IBD can not only effect dogs differently, but because the causative agent of one dog's IBD may different than another dog's and the treatment for one cause might be different than the treatment for another cause.

How to Prevent IBD in Dogs

Unfortunately, because there are so many causes for IBD in dogs, there really is no guaranteed way to prevent it. Occasional vomiting and diarrhea from getting into something your dog shouldn't can be normal, but if your dog has been struggling with either issue for a while, speak to your veterinarian about what could be causing your dog's symptoms.