What is Colitis in Dogs?
Canine colitis refers to inflammation in the large intestines (cecum, colon, rectum, and anus). The colon helps the body store stool and digest nutrients not yet absorbed from the stomach and small intestines. It enables the body to absorb (retain) water. The large intestines contain a vast array of bacteria whose job is to maintain the overall function and health of the large intestines. These bacteria work in concert with the rest of the gut to maintain a healthy digestive system and support a strong immune system.
Symptoms of Colitis in Dogs
Symptoms of colitis in dogs may include various outward signs. However, the hallmark remains diarrhea. This diarrhea often contains frank (fresh red) blood, mucus, or both.
Some dogs with colitis may start with a normal appearing poop that becomes mushy, while others have pure liquid diarrhea. While everyone is familiar with that sudden urgency and uncomfortable feeling accompanying diarrhea, dogs generally feel healthy, demonstrating normal energy levels despite the colitis.
Additional signs of colitis in dogs may include
- Gas (flatulence)
- Sudden urgency – you know that feeling of pressure, and you just gotta go!
- Frequent bowel movements – soft or formed, but the increased frequency, having to go really go separates large bowel diarrhea from small intestinal diarrhea
- Straining to defecate – (sometimes misinterpreted as constipation)
- Some dogs will vomit, but diarrhea defines dog colitis
Acute colitis lasting several days may be self-limiting and resolve without treatment or respond to a bland diet and probiotics. While chronic colitis in dogs (several weeks to months) may be more difficult to treat.
Regardless of the duration of symptoms, weight loss with colitis typically isn’t seen. Therefore, if you have a pet with colitis who is also losing weight, something more serious could be happening, and you need to find the underlying root of the problem.
What Causes Colitis in Dogs?
So, what causes colitis in dogs? Causes of colitis in dogs may include
- Dietary concerns: e.g., protein allergy; an inability to digest fats; or too much or too little fiber
- Parasites: e.g., whipworms, hookworms, giardia, or coccidia, a common puppy colitis cause
- Bacterial infection: Clostridium spp, Salmonella spp, or Campylobacter spp.
- Immune-mediated or autoimmune diseases: e.g., inflammatory bowel disease
- Stress: Think Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in people. One of the more common colitis causes in dogs.
Diagnosing the Cause of Colitis in Dogs
How do we diagnose colitis in dogs? Various tests help vets diagnose the underlying cause of colitis.
Your vet will evaluate your pet’s history and signs of colitis and perform a physical exam. The physical exam will include a rectal, where the vet can assess the colon and rectum for swelling, inflammation, masses, and blood. They can also evaluate the stool color and consistency. Tests may comprise a fecal sample (checking for parasites) and cytology of the stool (microscopic evaluation checking for undesirable bacteria, like Campylobacter). Additional tests will vary depending on the duration of signs of colitis, the pet’s age, other factors, and may include
- Colonoscopy and colon biopsies
- Cultures (feces)
- Abdominal ultrasound
Certain diagnoses are only made on biopsy, such as inflammatory bowel disease. In contrast, others are ruled in once everything is ruled out, like stress colitis in dogs or irritable bowel syndrome.
Treatment for Colitis in Dogs
Treatment for colitis for dogs starts off the same regardless of the underlying cause. Some suggest a fast; consider no food for 6 hours. Some vets will recommend longer fasting, but the gut heals when fed, and dogs have a fast metabolism. So, generally, a six-hour fast is sufficient to rest the gut.
What to feed a dog with colitis?
Ideally, we recommend starting with a bland diet (either home-cooked or prescription) and a high-quality, preferably veterinarian-prescribed or recommended probiotic. However, ultimately, the aim is to identify and resolve the underlying cause of colitis because different causes require different therapies. But it can also be a dietary indiscretion or something that your dog ate. In that case, simple treatment may be all that is necessary.
Owing to the presence of inflammation defines colitis, the presence of blood and mucus may warrant medications above and beyond a bland diet. But starting with a bland diet and probiotics is a safe first step that can be done at home.
Treatment for colitis in dogs: Initial therapy should include
- A bland diet – Either a prescription wet or dry food from your veterinarian or a short-term home-cooked meal. This usually consists of plain boiled chicken or plain boiled hamburger and rice with any fat removed.
- Small meals frequently – The gut never has to work too hard but is never fully empty, allowing it to heal.
- A veterinarian recommended probiotic – not just any over-the-counter product.
- No human food, treats, or other foods.
- Re-evaluate your current food choice and discuss alternatives with your primary care veterinarian.
- Once the pet has normal poops and is eating well for a minimum of 48-72 hours, one can slowly wean them back to their regular diet or onto a new diet over another 5-7. days. Switching too quickly from the bland diet to the pet’s regular food or to a novel food can trigger colitis to continue.
- A food elimination diet trial may be the next step, depending on your pet and findings on any diagnostic testing. The best dog food for colitis doesn’t exist. Each pet responds differently to foods, so what works for your dog may not work for another.
- If necessary, medications may be prescribed to address inflammation or infection. Remedies like metronidazole, tylan powder, sulfasalazine, Drontal Plus®, and even steroids like prednisone may be warranted.
Treating colitis in dogs takes patience. No matter the underlying cause, you will not stop diarrhea with one bland diet meal or one dose of medication. Most therapies take 24-72 hours to show improvement, and a complete return to normal may take up to a week or more, depending on the dog, the cause, and the therapy.
By supplementing a pet with a probiotic, you are providing them with a live group of gut-healthy bacteria that work together with the patient’s intestines. The products that bacteria make help nourish the small intestinal cells and immune system. But few studies exist, except on FDA-approved products. These products are few and far between, so make sure you use a product recommended by your veterinarian to ensure evidence-based medicine supports their use.
Will probiotics help treat colitis? Since these bacteria work on the small intestine, some people may question their use. However, while they may or may not improve colitis, they can help the overall quality of the gut immune system. Using yogurt (human gut bacteria) is a no-no as this is not a bland food for a dog and could worsen diarrhea. Ask your veterinarian what products they recommend, don’t just grab anything off the shelf just because it says for dogs.
What About Fiber For Colitis?
Fiber may have a role in managing dogs with colitis. However, pumpkin for colitis in dogs isn’t generally recommended. Fiber comes in various forms: soluble and insoluble. You should consult your veterinarian to determine if fiber is right for your pet. Don’t just give pumpkin or other fiber forms without talking to the vet first.
Dog Breeds That Are Prone to Colitis
Any dog can develop colitis. Generally, veterinarians do not typically associate colitis in dogs with specific breeds, with one or two exceptions. Boxers are known to get a particular form known as ulcerative colitis. Some case reports of French bulldogs developing a similar ulcerative form of colitis have also been reported.
Ulcerative Colitis in Dogs
This form of colitis causes severe inflammation and ulceration to the GI tract. Dogs become affected by the disease young, generally under two, and do not respond to typical medical management. They can be successfully treated with an antibiotic, enrofloxacin, which is effective against gram-negative bacteria such as E. coli.
The ulcerative form of colitis is thought to occur because the dog’s immune system negatively reacts to normal bacteria that live in the colon, specifically E. coli. A diagnosis of this form is based on intestinal biopsy and having ruled out other causes first.
How to Prevent Colitis in Dogs
You cannot control what your dog eats 24/7. Dogs investigate their environment with their mouths. One bout of colitis that resolves with the standard treatment happens! Dog poop (and diarrhea) happens. However, consult your veterinarian if a dog develops multiple bouts of colitis, doesn’t respond to therapy, or responds to therapy only to have symptoms return. If they haven’t been before, diagnostic tests are required. It would also be advised to do a feeding trial, ideally using a prescription hypoallergenic dog food.
Minimize your dog’s stress. Symptoms of stress colitis in dogs present no differently than other causes of colitis. However, maintain a routine if your dog is prone to stress colitis. Do not abruptly change schedules, foods, or other factors. If you decide to change foods, slowly wean a pet off one food and onto another. Recognize the signs of colitis, regardless of the underlying cause. If symptoms do not resolve in 24-48 hours, your pet is weak, not eating or drinking, or other signs develop, call or bring your pet to the veterinarian.
Steps to Prevent Colitis
A few steps may help lessen your dog’s chances of developing colitis.
- Have your dog on monthly heartworm prevention because, generally, these products protect against several common intestinal parasites.
- Do not abruptly change foods; slowly transition from one to another.
- Ensure when training your dog, valuablƒhe cues like paw, sit, and stay, you also want to include the cue ‘leave it’ or something akin to that. Preventing your dog from eating something the pet shouldn’t helps minimize the risk of colitis.
- Avoid high fatty foods, and prevent table scraps.
- Finally, always feed a high-quality pet food.
Colitis cannot be totally avoided, but these measures can help!