Nutrition and Dogs With Colitis


Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services

My dog has experienced off and on diarrhea over several months. My veterinarian tells me she has a condition called “colitis.”  What does this mean?

large-bowel-disease-nutrition-dogsColitis – inflammation of the colon or large bowel – is a fairly common problem in dogs, and diarrhea is the most common sign of colitis. Possible triggers of large bowel diarrhea include:

  • Dietary indiscretion (eating something they shouldn’t)
  • Gastrointestinal foreign bodies
  • Bacterial overgrowth
  • Parasites
  • Viruses
  • Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

IBD is thought to be the most common cause of chronic large bowel diarrhea in the dog.

The term IBD is a bit generic as there are several types of chronic colitis classified by the specific inflammatory cells involved. A specific cellular categorization of a dog’s colitis/IBD is only possible by way of a biopsy evaluated by a veterinary pathologist.

Colitis causes diarrhea characterized by straining (with little stool volume produced), urgency, and the presence of mucus and/or blood on (not in) the stool. Some dogs also seem to feel bad with lethargy and a lack of appetite, but most dogs with colitis appear bright and alert. Colitis can be acute or chronic, caused by a single gastrointestinal insult, or ongoing issues requiring systemic or nutritional management. Something as simple as changing to a higher-fat or meat-based nutrient profile can cause a bout of colitis.

Dealing with this issue may boil down to working with your veterinarian to find a nutrient profile that allows your dog’s GI system to function as normally as possible.

What caused my dog to develop colitis?

The exact cause of chronic colitis may never be completely identified. While there is no single cause for colitis, there are several risk factors for dogs to develop either acute or chronic colitis. For acute colitis, risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Breed
  • Environment
  • Immune status

Puppies are susceptible to a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause an acute episode of colitis. Immune system suppression during cancer treatment can set the stage for overgrowth of undesirable bacteria in the colon. Dietary indiscretion (the “nice” term for eating garbage) can result in acute colitis if there is rotten food in the trash. Getting into discarded bones can also cause a problem.

As for chronic colitis, there does not appear to be an age or gender predisposition. There are some breed predispositions for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is commonly implicated in chronic colitis. Some at risk breeds include:

  • Boxer
  • German Shepherd
  • French bulldog
  • Miniature schnauzer

What can I do to help my dog have a healthier colon?

Always be sure to provide plenty of fresh water. Water is the single most important nutrient, and good hydration lays the foundation for good colon health. Choose a nutrient profile which contains a high quality, high digestibility protein. The protein for an adult dog should be between 15% and 30% on a dry matter (DM) basis. For a growing puppy, the protein content should be 22% to 32% DM. Ideally, the protein digestibility should be ≥ 87%.  It may be appropriate to provide a single source, novel protein (one to which the dog has not previously been exposed) like venison or duck.

It may be best to provide the protein in a form called “hydrosylate”.  An hydrosylated protein is one that has been broken down into its composite amino acids. Think of it as a first step in protein digestion. For dogs with IBD-related colitis, a modified protein may be an important part of symptom management.

Dietary fat is often important in managing chronic colitis. Depending on the dog’s calorie needs, a nutrient profile with a low to moderate fat content (8 – 15% DM) may help control diarrhea from colitis. That said, many dogs with chronic colitis do just fine with a higher fat DM than 15%.

In addition to providing a high-digestibility protein to dogs with colitis, the carbohydrate component should also have high digestibility - ideally ≥ 90%.  Nutrients from highly digestible foods are better absorbed from the small intestine, leaving less residue for bacterial fermentation in the colon, thus reducing the risk for colitis-related diarrhea.

Finally, dietary fiber may play a role to benefit the large bowel of dogs with chronic colitis. Benefits of fiber include:

  • Normalizing the time it takes everything to move through the colon
  • Protecting the gut against toxins
  • Holding excess water in the stool and reducing the risk for diarrhea
  • Supporting growth of normal colon bacteria
  • Supporting healthy colon cells

Fiber can be soluble (e.g. fruit pectin), insoluble (e.g. peanut hulls); or mixed (e.g. beet pulp, bran).  Low fiber (≤ 5% DM crude fiber), moderate fiber (10 – 15% DM crude fiber), and high fiber (≥ 15% DM crude fiber) have all been used successfully to manage canine colitis.

Managing canine acute or chronic colitis means providing a nutrient balance that meets the dog’s needs, while also providing for normal GI movement and normal colonic water absorption in order to produce normal stool texture. Because there are many factors to consider, it is best to work with your veterinarian to assess your dog’s clinical and nutritional history, create a nutritional plan, and then evaluate the success of the plan. It may take more than one attempt to find the right nutrient profile for the individual dog. Be patient!  Persistence will pay off.

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