Pitbull dog poorly under a blanket

Managing their stress and diet can help a dog with IBS.

© Shutterstock

Irritable bowel syndrome in dogs

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

It can take a long time to find out if your dog has irritable bowel syndrome, but with the right treatment you can get your pet back to normal.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract – from the stomach to the colon – and thus signs in your dog can vary depending on which section is affected. Typical signs include: vomiting; diarrhoea (usually without blood); weight loss; poor appetite; or ravenous appetite.

The diagnosis of IBS can be a long process and often requires multiple different tests. IBS is confirmed when all physical causes of diarrhoea or vomiting have been ruled out, and is a diagnosis of exclusion as it is considered a psychosomatic disease – and is related to mental state. Initial testing includes: faecal samples for bacteriology and parasites; blood testing, including tests for vitamin B12 and folate; imaging – ultrasound scans or x-rays of the abdomen.

If there are no causes found with less invasive measures, a vet may recommend taking a biopsy from your dog’s gastrointestinal tract. Biopsies are a surgical procedure and need to be performed under general anaesthetic. Depending on the location of the problem, endoscopy may be used. An endoscopy is when a small camera is passed into the stomach or the colon, and the endoscope can be used to take small portions of tissue from these areas. If a sample is required from the middle portion of the intestines, your dog may need an exploratory laparotomy, which is when your vet will make an incision along your dog’s abdomen, and take samples from the intestines. Samples are usually sent to a pathologist for diagnosis. If all testing is negative, a diagnosis of IBS may be presumed.

The treatment of IBS involves reducing your dog’s anxiety. It is important to try to identify any causes that may be causing your dog to be stressed, and consulting a registered behaviourist for help in managing these stressors may be helpful. Things like building work, changes in home environments or loud noises could be contributing to their anxiety. If it isn’t possible to work out what is worrying your dog, anti-anxiety medications may be used. Some dogs may respond well to calming agents – these can be purchased as nutraceuticals for use in food, or as plug-in diffusers or collars.

As well as managing stress, dietary modification can be of great benefit. High fibre diets can help to reduce gastrointestinal spasms, and these can be used in combination with anti-spasmodics or anti-diarrhoeal medications as required. Good quality, high-fibre diets can be purchased from most veterinary practices, or speak to your vet about adding in additional fibre to your dog’s current diet.

What can I give my dog for IBS?

If you are concerned that your dog may have IBS, please consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes of diarrhoea or vomiting before attempting to treat at home. Once IBS has been confirmed, there may be changes you can make to your dog's environment or diet to help control the condition. Calming products (available as dietary additives, diffusers and collars) can be used to help reduce your dog’s anxiety and are commercially available both online and in pet stores. Feeding your dog a good quality, high-fibre diet may also help to reduce any signs of IBS.

How do I know if my dog has IBS?

IBS can be a challenge to identify, and all medical causes of diarrhoea or vomiting should be ruled out before your dog is diagnosed with IBS. Typically dogs with IBS are anxious or nervous, and have chronic episodes of diarrhoea. Lots of dogs show an urgency to go to the toilet, stomach cramping and pass small amounts of mucous-filled diarrhoea. These episodes can be short lived if related to a stressful situation e.g. kennels or even a car journey, or can be chronic.

How can I treat my dog’s IBS naturally?

Once all medical problems have been treated or ruled-out, there may be dietary supplements available to help settle any diarrhoeic episodes. Dietary management is often effective, so finding a food that suits your dog is helpful in managing the condition. Speak to a veterinarian about what supplements they may recommend for your dog's condition.

What is the difference between IBS and IBD in dogs?

Many people confuse the terms IBS and IBD. Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a physical condition, characterised by inflammation of the intestinal lining. The lining of the intestines becomes thickened and is unable to effectively absorb nutrients from the gut. These changes can be seen when samples are sent to a pathologist for assessment. IBS is psychosomatic and gastrointestinal signs are related to your dog's mental state. Like in people, IBS is often related to a stressful situation or event, or can be down to chronic stress. If samples are taken from a gut with IBS, there are no physical changes to be found when examined by a pathologist.

What is the best diet for a dog with inflammatory bowel disease?

All dogs with IBD are different and the best diet for your dog depends on multiple factors. When choosing a diet, we need to consider which part of the gut is affected, whether your dog has any food sensitivities and, of course, if this diet is palatable. Sometimes we need to try a few different diets to work out which works best. Foods commonly recommended for the treatment of IBD are hypoallergenic or high-fibre diets. Sometimes a vet may recommend a home-cooked diet containing only one type of protein (e.g. venison or rabbit) and one type of carbohydrate (e.g. potato or rice). It can take a long time to see the effects of the diet, and it’s usually recommended to feed these diets exclusively for at least six weeks. This means no extra treats.

How long do dogs with IBD live?

Most dogs with IBD live normal lives and the prognosis for dogs with the condition is generally good, as long as the condition is well managed. Once treatment with diet and/or medication is successful, many dogs will live happily for years. Unfortunately some dogs fail to respond to treatment and life-expectancy depends on the severity of their disease.

Do probiotics help dogs with IBD?

Probiotics are commonly recommended by vets for dogs with diarrhoea and may be of benefit in dogs with IBD. Probiotics contain bacteria that is beneficial for the gut and help to restore the balance of ‘good’ bacteria. The quality and effectiveness of probiotics can differ between brands, so ask a vet for their recommendation. It is worth noting that some dogs don’t respond well to probiotic therapy and the use of probiotics on their own is unlikely to stop the signs of IBD.

Is IBD painful for dogs?

Irritable bowel disease can be painful as it is an inflammatory condition. The guts are irritated and can spasm, so abdominal pain is a common finding in patients.

What causes gastrointestinal problems in dogs?

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems in dogs can be caused by many different things. Internal parasites are a common cause of vomiting and diarrhoea, and are usually easily treated. Bacterial or viral causes are capable of causing vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain in dogs – infections can be mild and self-limiting, or severe and require intensive care depending on the infectious agent. Diet plays a role in the health of our dogs’ gut: some dogs may have intolerances to ingredients in their food, while others may scavenge and eat things that make them sick. Foreign bodies in the GI tract (e.g. chewed-up toys, bones) can become stuck and may require emergency surgery. Issues with organs, such as the liver and pancreas, can also present with vague signs including an upset stomach or diarrhoea.

How do you treat inflammatory bowel disease in dogs?

IBD is an incurable condition and requires life-long treatment through diet, medication and parasite control. Some dogs may require only dietary modification to manage the condition, or require only short courses of medication, while others may need long-term medical treatment to keep their IBD under control.

Your dog’s diet is an important factor in managing IBD. Finding a diet that works for your dog can be a challenge, and it can take numerous foods to work out what works best for them. A vet will recommend specific or prescription diets, which need to be fed exclusively for at least six weeks. These diets may be hydrolysed or novel protein diets, and usually contain high levels of fibre.

Antibiotics such as metronidazole or oxytetracycline may be prescribed. These antibiotics have anti-inflammatory effects and help to restore the balance of normal bacteria found in the gut. Drugs such as corticosteroids are sometimes prescribed to help control the symptoms, but regular check-ups are necessary in case of side effects.

Deworming medication is routinely prescribed for dogs with IBD. It is important to keep your dog parasite-free, as worms or protozoal infections can exacerbate any clinical signs.

Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) is commonly given alongside other treatments. It is likely your dog’s levels of B12 have been checked during diagnosis of IBD, as many dogs with the condition are unable to absorb adequate amounts of this vitamin. Lots of dogs require regular top ups of B12 with either injections or oral supplementation.

How do you treat gastrointestinal disease in dogs?

Treatment depends on the cause of the disease. There is no ‘one size fits all’ treatment with regards to gut problems and many dogs require a tailored response. A vet will perform a number of tests to rule out, or in, conditions and assess your dog's health before any medications are dispensed. Dogs with a short gastrointestinal (or GI) illness may be managed with anthelmintics and probiotics, but others may require a course of antibiotics depending on their condition. Dietary modification, even if temporary, is usually recommended to provide the best nutrition for the cells of the gut during illness. If there are concerns that there may be an obstruction somewhere in the gut, treatment may involve imaging with ultrasound or x-rays, and even potentially surgery.

How do you know if your dog has digestive problems?

There are lots of things you can look at to check on your dog’s digestive health and, while it may not be appealing, a quick look at your dog’s faeces can reveal a lot. Monitoring your dog’s bowel movements is helpful in noticing any potential issues. If your dog is going to the toilet more frequently, passing loose or bloody stools, or struggling to pass stools at all, these can all be signs of digestive problems. Appetite can be another indicator to use. If your dog is eating less than normal or vomiting, consult a vet for advice. Regular weight checks are helpful in assessing whether your dog is absorbing enough nutrients from their food, assuming they are on an appropriate amount of good quality diet.

Can IBD in dogs be fatal?

Most dogs with IBD live relatively normal lives, assuming that they respond well to the treatment that is offered. Unfortunately some dogs fail to respond to this treatment and may struggle to live happily.

When should I see a vet?

Always consult a vet if you have any concerns with your dog’s gut health. This is particularly important in young puppies or particularly small dogs, dogs with pre-existing health conditions or elderly animals. While some conditions such as a blockage are true emergencies, even simple conditions like diarrhoea can become more difficult to manage if left untreated. Diarrhoea and vomiting can both result in dehydration, so always visit a veterinarian as quickly as possible if you notice any changes in your pet.

More advice on...

What did you think of this advice article?

Thanks for your feedback !

Thanks for your feedback !

1 person found this advice article helpful.

Leave a comment
Connect to comment
Want to share this article?