Written by Dr. Cariann Turbeville

Worried that your dog has inflammatory bowel disease? Although it’s commonly called a disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in dogs is actually a syndrome (IBS), meaning that it’s a group of symptoms occurring simultaneously. But call it what you will, inflammatory bowel disease is misery for your dog, and for you as the dog’s beloved human.

What causes inflammatory bowel disease in dogs?

Inflammatory bowel disease in dogs is caused by chronic irritation of the intestinal tract but the root cause is poorly understood, making diagnosis difficult. In this condition, the sensitive lining of your dog’s intestine is invaded by inflammatory cells, creating an allergic-type response which interferes with your dog’s ability to digest food normally.

Inflammatory bowel disease can involve any part of the digestive gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It most commonly affects the stomach and/or the intestines. If the stomach is involved, your dog will experience chronic vomiting. If the intestines are involved, chronic diarrhea will occur. In some dogs, both parts of the digestive tract are involved so both vomiting and diarrhea occur. If the syndrome lasts for more than a few weeks, weight loss and poor appetite are common. However, some dogs develop a voracious appetite in response to their inability to digest and absorb what they are eating.

Diagnosing inflammatory bowel disease in dogs

If your dog is experiencing frequent, extreme tummy trouble from either (or both) ends, check in with Airvet to discuss what you’re observing. First steps may be to switch foods and try a hypoallergenic diet, a low-residue (meaning low in fiber and fat) diet, or a high fiber diet.

Rule out worms

Gastrointestinal issues could also signal that your dog has worms, which are very common among dogs. Fecal tests are needed to check for microscopic parasite eggs. It’s important to know whether they are part of the problem. Unfortunately, most intestinal parasites don’t shed eggs every single day, so a negative fecal test is not a guarantee that your pet doesn’t have worms. Therefore, it may be helpful to administer a broad spectrum dewormer which eliminates several types of internal parasites in your dog.

Visiting a veterinarian for IBD

If a simple change of diet and deworming doesn’t solve the problem, it’s time to schedule a face-to-face visit with the vet. Be sure to bring a fecal sample that is less than 12 hours old in a Ziplock bag or disposable container. First, understand that there is no actual cure for inflammatory bowel disease, although the syndrome is highly treatable and can be managed. And because every dog is unique and dogs respond differently to foods and medications, a series of tests may be needed.

Testing for inflammatory bowel disease in dogs

Your vet will begin by testing your dog’s blood, examining a fecal sample, and imaging the intestines by X-ray and/or ultrasound. Often IBD is diagnosed by first ruling out all of the other common causes of GI distress. Blood work reveals the condition of your dog’s vital organs: kidneys, liver and pancreas. X-rays give an overall view of your dog’s GI tract and can detect large tumors. Ultrasound may show small tumors, enlarged lymph nodes, or thickening of the intestinal wall.

Depending upon the results of X-rays and ultrasound, your vet could recommend either an endoscopic procedure or full abdominal exploratory surgery. This may be done to observe the conditions of the digestive tract, and to collect tissue samples for a biopsy. Both types of procedures will require that your dog be fasted the night prior to the vet visit, and your dog will be anesthetized for the procedure.

Airvet app screenshots and invitation to download the free Airvet app

Endoscopy to diagnose IBD in dogs

An endoscopic procedure uses a tiny camera and light on a flexible fiber optic tube to observe the interior of the gastrointestinal tract. The instrument may be introduced into the body cavity via a natural opening in your dog’s body, generally down the throat of your sedated dog, or through a tiny incision in the abdomen when absolutely necessary. The endoscopic instrument may also be fitted with a tiny blade, so that the doctor can take a tissue sample to be examined. The anesthetic used for endoscopy is short-acting, and most dogs will return home the same day as the procedure.

Exploratory surgery to diagnose IBD in dogs

Full abdominal exploratory surgery is more complex, requiring about one hour under anesthesia. Once your dog is comfortably asleep, the hair on the belly will be clipped and disinfected, and the surgeon will use a scalpel to make a small incision.

Occasionally, this procedure even reveals that a dog has swallowed something that may be causing digestive mayhem. Every vet has stories to tell about bizarre and dangerous items swallowed by curious pets! Biopsies of the stomach and intestines will likely be taken, then reviewed by a pathologist.

Your vet may recommend that your dog stay in the hospital for a few days for observation following a full exploratory procedure. Intravenous fluids may be given to your dog and they may be placed on a soft diet during the recovery period. Pain medication will make recovery more comfortable, and your dog will need to wear a cone or Elizabethan collar (try the comfortable, soft, “donut” cone) until the incision is fully healed.

Treatments for IBD in dogs

Once inflammatory bowel disease has been diagnosed, the conversation then will turn to managing the problems that cause the symptoms: chronic and acute inflammation.

Most dogs with IBD need to be treated with steroid drugs that decrease the inflammation in the GI tract, usually prednisone or prednisolone. Unfortunately, they frequently result in significant side effects. In some pets, these side effects include diabetes, osteoporosis, and weight gain. Sometimes, an antibiotic called metronidazole is used as it not only reduces potentially harmful bacteria present in the GI tract, but also has anti-inflammatory effects of its own.

Your veterinarian may recommend an elimination diet to help your dog, if it has not been tried already. Other helpful options may include adding probiotics, enzymes, and herbs such as marshmallow root to your dog’s menu, but don’t try these without discussing them with your veterinarian.

With careful observation, inflammatory bowel disease in dogs can often be successfully managed. Since there’s no cure, you and your vet will need to partner to figure out what is triggering the IBD. Likewise, you will need to observe how your dog responds to various treatments including food, medications and lifestyle changes so that you can successfully manage this syndrome on an ongoing basis. Keep a record of what improves and what triggers your dog’s symptoms.

If you’re concerned that your dog may have IBD, contact Airvet to discuss what you’re observing in your dog.

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