How to Manage IBD in Dogs

Published by Ashley Gallagher, DVM
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There are few things that get a dog parent out of bed faster than the unmistakable sound of your dog about to throw up. Just like humans, dogs can vomit and have diarrhoea from time to time. But if your dog's tummy issues don't resolve in a day or two, you might need to talk to your veterinarian about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in dogs and related conditions like colitis in dogs.

What Is IBD in Dogs?

IBD is a condition that involves inflammation of the walls of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Sometimes this condition is also called chronic enteropathy and then subdivided into groups based on how the dog responds to different treatments: food responsive, antibiotic responsive and steroid responsive. For simplicity, we are just going to stick to the term IBD for this article.

Signs that your dog may have IBD include frequent vomiting, decreased appetite, weight loss, loose stool, frequent defecation, or liquid or bloody diarrhoea. Over time, IBD can lead to weight loss, decreased muscle mass and a poor coat. If you notice any of these signs, you should make an appointment with your dog's vet.

Black miniature schnauzer lying down on dog bed basket

What Is Causing the GI Upset?

To understand the cause of GI upset associated with IBD, it is important to understand how food is broken down and absorbed by the body. When food is consumed, it travels down the oesophagus and stops in the stomach, where it undergoes digestion and breaks down into a more liquid substance called chyme. The chyme then passes into the small intestine, where most of the digestion and absorption of nutrients into the body occurs. The last stop in the GI tract is the large intestine, also called the colon. Here, bacteria break down the fibre in the food and water is absorbed. This process can be disrupted — at one or multiple points in the GI tract — by inflammation that alters the organs' ability to perform correctly .The inflammation is an overreaction by the immune system — either to something your dog ate or from a malfunction of the immune system, called an autoimmune disease. This results in discomfort and interferes with the GI tract's ability to properly absorb nutrients.  

 Inflammation in the stomach is called gastritis and usually results in vomiting. When the inflammation is in the small intestine it's classified as enteritis; in the colon, it's called colitis. The characteristics of your dog's diarrhoea can help the vet determine if the GI issues are caused by enteritis, colitis or both, and can help in determining the proper treatment.

How Is IBD in Dogs Different From IBS?

The clinical signs of IBD can be similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in people, but the underlying cause is quite different. IBS in people is thought to occur as a result of abnormal movement of the muscle in the intestines.

How Does a Vet Diagnose IBD in Dogs?

To determine if your dog has IBD, the vet may first perform baseline blood work and faecal testing. These tests help assess your dog's overall health and rule out other medical conditions. An ultrasound or radiographs may also be necessary to image the organs of the abdomen. In most cases, your dog’s response to a modulation of the microbiome or other therapies, such as steroids, may help with the diagnosis. In some cases, an endoscopy during which biopsies of gut wall tissue will be taken for further examination will be needed to get to the correct diagnosis and treatment.

Young female veterinarian in blue uniform inspecting golden retriever in blue colla on table during check-up.

How Do You Manage IBD in Dogs?

Once your dog is diagnosed with IBD, there are several treatment options to choose from that depend on the severity of the condition.

  • A dietetic meal plan is often the first line of defence. Options include easily digestible formulas, novel or hydrolyzed protein formulas and high fibre formulas. Each of these options works in a different way to help the GI tract function more efficiently.

  • Maintaining and supporting the health of your dog's unique microbiome — an environment consisting of billions of bacteria and other microorganisms in the intestines — can help manage IBD. Managing the microbiome is accomplished through the use of prebiotic fibres probiotic bacteria. We are now discovering how nutrition can impact your dog's microbiome and developing formulas that help promote more of the good bacteria to help improve your dog's GI health.

Having a dog who experiences frequent vomiting or diarrhoea isn't pleasant for anyone, but there are things you can do to make your dog more comfortable, save the rugs in your home and, most importantly, improve your dog's overall health.

Contributor Bio

Ashley Gallagher, DVM hugging her dog.

Dr. Ashley Gallagher

Dr. Ashley Gallagher is a veterinarian in Salem, Massachusetts. After graduating from University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine she accepted a position into Friendship Hospital for Animals’ highly competitive, yearlong internship program in Washington, DC. She then spent twelve years at Friendship Hospital for Animals as a staff veterinarian with duties that include seeing appointments as well as performing elective and emergency surgeries. In the past year she and her family have moved to Massachusetts where she took over as Chief of Staff at New England Veterinary Clinic. She lives with her husband, two daughters, Frank the Labradoodle and Vegas the cat.


Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA and Dr. Becky Mullis, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition)