Top 5 Causes Of Colitis In Dogs Prevention Tips for a Healthier Pup

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Colitis is one of those issues that can sometimes be a symptom of something more serious. Colitis is also very treatable and preventable. Find out more here about what causes colitis and how to make sure that your dog doesn't get it.

Colitis in dogs is an irritation of the colon and is a common malady. It isn’t actually a disease itself but a symptom of several other diseases and problems. The big ones are stress, infection or parasites, allergies, or any of several bowel diseases.

Read more to find out what these conditions mean, how dogs get them, and what a vet can do to help your dog feel better.

Common Signs That Your Dog May Have Colitis

  • Many small, loose, or watery stools
  • Straining before or after defecation
  • Sometimes passing bright red blood or mucus with the stool
  • Your poor pooch may be vomiting, too

If your dog is suffering from these symptoms, the chances of colitis are high. Any dog with these symptoms should go to the vet immediately. Colitis is not a condition you should diagnose on your own. However, knowing what causes colitis might help you keep your dog from getting it in the first place.

Top Causes of Colitis in Dogs

1. Stress

Canine stress is a major cause of colitis, especially in shelter dogs. Traveling, moving, and upheavals at home can all cause stress. Each dog has their own hang-up, and these could be causing problems as well. Obviously, if your dog is literally sick with worry, something is very wrong.

Depending on what the source of stress is, the solution may be to remove the problem or to support the dog through the crisis with training. Sedatives may be called for in some cases, and in others, a bit of TLC could solve the problem. Sometimes probiotic supplements are able to address symptoms as well.

2. Infection or Parasites

E. coli, Salmonella, Giardia, whipworms, and other infections and parasites of the gut can cause colitis. Dogs pick up these infestations from contaminated food or water or from each other, so the simple solution is not to allow dogs to eat or lick anything off the ground--easier said than done, of course!

Remember to bring a water bottle and a collapsible bowl on longer walks so your dog won’t feel tempted to drink from puddles. Remember, also, that even water that looks clean might be contaminated.

Once a dog is infected, the vet may take a stool sample to find out what exactly your dog has and prescribe the right medication to get rid of it.

3. Allergies

From food to the environment to items in the home, dogs can be allergic to all the same allergens as humans. And, as with human allergies, dog allergies can be tricky to diagnose. Through trial and error, and with some help from your vet, figure out what your dog is allergic to, and remove it from their life. A hypoallergenic food may be in order. Again, drugs can provide symptomatic relief, and treatment with probiotics might help.

4. Other Diseases

There are a number of different inflammatory bowel diseases, not all of which are well understood. Some conditions are diagnosed mainly by ruling everything else out.

Associated Conditions of Colitis in Dogs

Colitis in dogs can be influenced by various underlying conditions, each contributing to the inflammation and irritation of the colon. Understanding these associated conditions is crucial for effective diagnosis and treatment.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a common cause of colitis in dogs. IBD is characterized by chronic intestinal inflammation, leading to persistent gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and weight loss. The exact cause of IBD is often unclear but may involve an abnormal immune response to intestinal bacteria or food antigens.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in dogs is another condition that can manifest as colitis. IBS is typically related to stress or anxiety and results in sporadic episodes of gastrointestinal distress. Unlike IBD, IBS does not cause persistent inflammation but can still significantly impact a dog's quality of life. Dr. Julie Buzby says IBS leads to stress colitis and should be differentiated from IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). 

Food Allergies and Food Hypersensitivity

Food allergies and food hypersensitivity are significant contributors to colitis in dogs. Dogs may react adversely to certain proteins or additives in their diet, leading to intestinal inflammation and colitis. Identifying and eliminating the offending food items from the dog's diet is essential for managing this condition.

Intestinal Parasites

Intestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms, are common culprits behind colitis in dogs. These parasites can cause significant gut infection and inflammation, leading to symptoms of colitis. Regular deworming and preventive measures are crucial in reducing the risk of parasite-induced colitis.

Infectious Agents and Gut Infection

Infectious agents, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, can invade the intestinal tract, causing colitis. Common bacterial invaders such as Salmonella and Campylobacter can lead to bacterial invasion and severe inflammation of the colon. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment are necessary to manage bacterial infections.

Fungal Infections

Fungal infections, although less common than bacterial infections, can also lead to colitis. Fungal diseases such as histoplasmosis and candidiasis can cause significant intestinal inflammation and require antifungal therapy for effective treatment.

Genetic Predisposition

Some dog breeds have a genetic predisposition to developing colitis and related gastrointestinal disorders. Breeds such as Boxers and German Shepherds are more prone to these conditions, likely due to inherited immune system characteristics or other genetic factors.

Infiltrative Disease Process

Infiltrative diseases, including lymphocytic-plasmacytic enteritis and eosinophilic enteritis, involve the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the intestinal wall. These conditions can cause chronic colitis and require a combination of dietary management, immunosuppressive therapy, and other treatments to control inflammation.

Types of Colitis in Dogs

Colitis in dogs refers to the inflammation of the colon, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, and discomfort. It can be classified into various types based on the underlying cause and the nature of inflammation. Below are the different types of colitis commonly seen in dogs:

Chronic Colitis

Chronic colitis is a long-lasting inflammation of the colon that can last weeks, months, or even years. Symptoms include intermittent diarrhea, often with mucus or blood, weight loss, and frequent, painful defecation. Chronic colitis can result from a variety of causes, including food allergies, parasitic infections, or immune-mediated diseases.

Acute Colitis

Acute colitis occurs suddenly and is typically characterized by sudden onset of diarrhea, often accompanied by straining and urgency. This type is usually caused by dietary indiscretion, infections, or stress. Unlike chronic colitis, acute colitis usually resolves quickly with appropriate treatment, which may include dietary changes and medications to address the underlying cause.

Granulomatous Colitis

Granulomatous colitis is a rare and severe form of colitis that involves the formation of granulomas, which are clusters of inflammatory cells. This type is often associated with certain breeds, particularly Boxer dogs. Granulomatous colitis is thought to have a genetic component and is linked to a specific bacterial infection (E. coli). Treatment involves long-term antibiotics and immune-modulating drugs.

Histiocytic Ulcerative Colitis

Histiocytic ulcerative colitis, also known as Boxer colitis, is characterized by the presence of histiocytes (a type of immune cell) within ulcerative lesions in the colon. This condition leads to chronic, severe diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia. It primarily affects young Boxer dogs and French Bulldogs. The treatment typically involves long-term antibiotic therapy targeting the invasive bacteria.

Stress Colitis

Stress colitis is a type of colitis triggered by stress or anxiety. It is common in dogs that are experiencing changes in their environment, travel, or other stressful situations. Symptoms include sudden diarrhea, often with mucus, and sometimes vomiting. Management includes reducing stressors, providing a high-fiber diet, and, in some cases, anti-anxiety medications.

Eosinophilic Colitis

Eosinophilic colitis is characterized by an increased number of eosinophils, a type of white blood cell, in the colon. This condition is often linked to food allergies or parasitic infections. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and abdominal pain. Treatment involves dietary changes, anti-parasitic medications, and sometimes corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.

Lymphocytic Plasmacytic Colitis

Lymphocytic plasmacytic colitis is the most common form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in dogs. It involves infiltration of the colon with lymphocytes and plasma cells, types of white blood cells. The exact cause is unknown but is thought to be related to an abnormal immune response to intestinal contents. Treatment includes dietary management, immunosuppressive drugs, and antibiotics.

Suspected Clostridial Colitis

Suspected clostridial colitis is associated with an overgrowth of Clostridium bacteria in the colon. This type of colitis can cause severe, sometimes bloody diarrhea and is often related to dietary changes or contamination. Diagnosis is typically confirmed through fecal tests identifying the presence of Clostridium toxins. Treatment includes appropriate antibiotics and supportive care.

Understanding the various types of colitis in dogs is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment. Each type has distinct characteristics and requires tailored management strategies to ensure the well-being of affected dogs. If you suspect your dog has colitis, consult a veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Symptoms and Clinical Signs of Colitis in Dogs

Chronic Diarrhea and Large Bowel Diarrhea

Chronic diarrhea is a hallmark symptom of colitis in dogs. When the large intestine is inflamed, it often results in large bowel diarrhea, characterized by frequent, urgent defecation of small volumes of stool. This type of diarrhea is distinct from small intestinal diarrhea, which typically involves larger volumes of stool passed less frequently.

Most Common Clinical Sign: Large Intestinal Diarrhea

The most common clinical sign of colitis in dogs is large intestinal diarrhea. This condition involves the large intestine, or large bowel, and is typically marked by the presence of mucus and sometimes fresh blood in the dog's stool. These signs are indicative of the inflammation affecting the large intestinal tract, particularly the descending colon and the rest of the dog's colon.

Typical Signs of Colitis

Typical signs of colitis in dogs include frequent bowel movements, straining during defecation, and the presence of fresh blood and mucus in the stool. Dogs may also exhibit signs of discomfort, occasionally pain, especially during defecation. The inflammation of the intestinal wall can lead to increased colonic motility, with normal colonic contractions being replaced by giant migrating contractions, which are irregular and often more forceful.

Clinical Signs and Additional Symptoms

Additional clinical signs of colitis may include weight loss, particularly in chronic cases with impaired nutrient absorption. Although the primary focus is the large intestine, the inflammation can affect the overall health of the dog, leading to systemic symptoms. The dog's stool may also change in consistency and color, often becoming more watery and containing visible fresh blood.

Impact on the Intestinal Tract

Colitis primarily affects the large intestine, but it can also indirectly impact the small intestine. Inflammation in the large bowel can cause a cascade of issues within the entire intestinal tract, disrupting normal digestion and absorption processes. The large intestine's role in absorbing water and electrolytes is compromised, leading to the common clinical signs of diarrhea.

Colonic Motility and Contractions

In a healthy dog, normal colonic contractions help move stool through the large intestine efficiently. In colitis, these normal contractions can be disrupted, leading to abnormal colonic motility. The presence of giant migrating contractions, which are stronger and more irregular than normal, can cause the frequent and urgent bowel movements seen in affected dogs.

Diagnosing Colitis

Your vet may want to conduct blood tests, a colonoscopy, or an ultrasound evaluation. The vet must know what to treat and rule out worst-case scenarios, such as tumors.

Physical and Rectal Examination

The initial step in diagnosing colitis in dogs involves a comprehensive physical examination, often followed by a thorough rectal examination. This procedure helps veterinarians assess any abnormalities in the rectal and colonic areas. Dogs diagnosed with colitis may exhibit signs that prompt further diagnostic testing, such as detecting inflamed or thickened areas in the large intestine.

Imaging Techniques: Radiographs and Ultrasound

Routine abdominal radiographs are commonly used to visualize the structure of the dog's abdomen. While these images can reveal gross morphologic appearance abnormalities, such as a partially obstructed segment of the colon, they may not always detect subtle lesions. An abdominal ultrasound offers a more detailed view and can occasionally demonstrate intraluminal narrowing, indicative of colitis. This imaging technique allows veterinarians to observe the intestinal wall's thickness and detect other potential issues within the abdomen.

Fecal Analysis and Rectal Cytology

Fecal flotation is a routine diagnostic procedure that helps identify parasitic infections that can mimic or contribute to colitis. Additionally, rectal cytology involves collecting cells from the rectal mucosa to examine under a microscope. This procedure helps identify the presence of inflammatory cells, such as plasma cells and goblet cells, which are common in colitis cases. Peripheral eosinophilia, an increase in eosinophils in the blood, can also be detected through these tests and may indicate an allergic or parasitic cause of colitis.

Advanced Diagnostics: Colon Biopsies

When initial tests are inconclusive, more advanced diagnostics like colon biopsies are performed. Colonic biopsies involve taking small tissue samples from the colon to examine for inflammation and other abnormalities. These biopsies are crucial for identifying specific types of inflammatory cells and diagnosing the exact nature of colitis. The presence of plasma cells, goblet cells, and other inflammatory cells helps confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity and type of colitis.

Diagnosing colitis in dogs often requires a combination of these diagnostic procedures to get a comprehensive understanding of the condition. Each step provides valuable information, from physical and rectal examinations to advanced imaging and tissue sampling. Integrating the results from these various tests helps veterinarians to accurately diagnose colitis and tailor an effective treatment plan for the affected dog.

In addition to whatever specific treatment your dog may need, the vet may recommend a fast for a day or two, a shift to a low-residue or hypoallergenic diet, or increasing fiber content in the diet.

Colitis Is Highly Treatable

In all but a very few rare cases, colitis can be treated successfully, and your dog will soon feel well enough to try to get into the compost pile and get in trouble all over again!

Dr. Ricky Walther, DVM, says that some issues related to colitis can be treated easily, while others may not be curable and can only be managed to alleviate the symptoms. Treating colitis in dogs requires a multifaceted approach tailored to the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Veterinarians might use several treatment options, including medication and dietary adjustments. The goal is to reduce inflammation, manage symptoms, and improve the dog’s overall health and quality of life.

Anti-inflammatory and Immunosuppressive Drugs

Anti-inflammatory medications help reduce the inflammation in the dog's colon, alleviating symptoms like diarrhea and pain. Common anti-inflammatory medications include corticosteroids, which are effective but must be used with caution due to potential side effects.

In more severe cases of colitis, immunosuppressive drugs may be necessary. These medications help control the immune system’s response, preventing it from attacking the intestinal wall. By suppressing this overactive immune response, these drugs can significantly reduce inflammation and promote healing in the colon.

Antimicrobial/Antibiotic Drugs

If a bacterial infection is suspected or confirmed, antimicrobial drugs are prescribed. These antibiotics target harmful bacteria in the gut that may be contributing to or causing colitis. Dr. Shelby Loos, DVM, says that Metronidazole, tylosin, and sulfasalazine are some commonly prescribed antibiotics. These drugs can help clear infections, reduce inflammation, and restore normal intestinal function. A vet will try different diets and run more diagnostics if the condition doesn't improve with these drugs. 

Highly Digestible and Bland Diets

Dietary management plays a crucial role in treating colitis. Feeding the dog a highly digestible diet can minimize irritation to the inflamed intestinal walls. These diets are designed to be easy on the digestive system, reducing the workload on the large intestine and promoting healing.

A bland diet is often recommended during acute flare-ups of colitis. This type of diet typically includes easily digestible ingredients like boiled chicken, white rice, or specially formulated veterinary diets. The simplicity of a bland diet helps soothe the digestive tract and decrease symptoms like diarrhea.

Low Residue and Novel Protein Diets

A low-residue diet is another effective dietary strategy for managing colitis. This type of diet produces less stool because it contains fewer indigestible components. By reducing the amount of stool, the large intestine experiences less strain, which can help alleviate colitis symptoms.

Novel protein diets or hydrolyzed-protein diets are used when food allergies or intolerances are suspected to cause colitis. These diets contain proteins that the dog has not been previously exposed to, reducing the risk of an allergic reaction. Common novel protein sources include venison, duck, or hydrolyzed proteins.

Long-term dietary management is essential for dogs with chronic colitis. Incorporating a balanced and appropriate diet helps maintain intestinal health and prevent flare-ups. Veterinarians often recommend ongoing use of a highly digestible, low residue, or novel protein diet, depending on the dog's specific needs and response to treatment. Vets can also suggest prebiotics and probiotics to improve the digestive system and resolve diarrhea. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What should dogs with colitis not eat?

Dogs with colitis should avoid certain foods that can exacerbate their condition. While fiber can be beneficial for managing colitis, it's important to introduce it gradually and in moderation, as excessive amounts of fiber can cause digestive upset and worsen symptoms in some dogs with colitis. High-fiber foods, such as beans, legumes, and bran, can be difficult for dogs to digest and may lead to flatulence, bloating, and diarrhea. Many dogs are lactose intolerant, and dairy products can cause gastrointestinal upset, including diarrhea. Foods that are high in fat can be difficult for dogs with colitis to digest, leading to inflammation of the digestive tract and diarrhea. Spices and seasonings, such as chili powder, garlic, and onion, can irritate the digestive tract and worsen colitis symptoms. Raw fruits and vegetables can be difficult for dogs to digest and may cause diarrhea. Cooked fruits and vegetables are generally easier to digest. Some dogs with colitis may have an intolerance to grains, such as wheat, corn, and soy, which can trigger inflammation of the digestive tract. Highly processed foods, such as canned or packaged foods, may contain additives and preservatives that can be hard on the digestive system.

What does colitis poop look like?

In general, dogs with colitis may have loose or watery stools, and they may produce more frequent bowel movements than normal. The stool may be streaked with mucus or blood and may have a foul odor. Some dogs with colitis may also strain to defecate, indicating that their bowel movements are painful or uncomfortable.

Is pumpkin good for dogs with colitis?

Yes, pumpkins can be a beneficial food for dogs with colitis. Pumpkin is a good source of soluble fiber, which can help to regulate bowel movements and reduce inflammation in the digestive tract. Additionally, pumpkin contains antioxidants and other nutrients that can support overall digestive health. When feeding pumpkin to a dog with colitis, use plain, canned pumpkin that does not contain any added sugars, spices, or other ingredients. You can add a tablespoon or two of pumpkin to your dog's meals or offer it as a treat or snack. However, introduce pumpkin gradually, starting with a small amount and increasing slowly over time, to avoid causing any digestive upset.

How can I treat my dog's colitis naturally?

While there is no one-size-fits-all natural treatment for colitis in dogs, there are some steps you can take to help manage your dog's symptoms and promote its overall digestive health. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can help to support a healthy balance of gut flora and improve digestive function. You can give your dog a probiotic supplement or offer them foods that are naturally high in probiotics, such as kefir, yogurt, and fermented vegetables. Slippery elm is an herb that has a soothing effect on the digestive tract and can help to reduce inflammation and irritation. You can add powdered slippery elm to your dog's food or give them a slippery elm supplement. Aloe vera has anti-inflammatory and healing properties that can be beneficial for dogs with colitis. You can give your dog a small amount of aloe vera juice or gel or use it topically to soothe irritated skin around the anus. Homemade bone broth is a nutrient-rich food that can help to improve digestive function and reduce inflammation. You can make bone broth by simmering bones, vegetables, and other ingredients for several hours, then straining the liquid and offering it to your dog as a supplement or as a base for homemade dog food. Licorice root contains compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties and can help to soothe the digestive tract. However, licorice should be used with caution, as it can have negative effects on blood pressure and potassium levels in some dogs. Consult with a veterinarian before using licorice as a treatment for colitis in dogs. Curcumin is a compound found in turmeric that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Curcumin supplements can be given to dogs with colitis to help reduce inflammation in the digestive tract. Cinnamon oil has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce inflammation and promote digestive health. Cinnamon oil can be added to a dog's food or applied topically to the skin around the anus. Glutamine is an amino acid that can help to support gut health and repair the digestive tract. Glutamine supplements can be given to dogs with colitis to help promote healing and reduce inflammation. Boswellia serrata is an herb that has anti-inflammatory properties and can help to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract. Boswellia serrata supplements can be given to dogs with colitis to help manage their symptoms.

Is wet food better for dogs with colitis?

Wet food may be better for dogs with colitis because it typically contains more moisture and can be easier to digest than dry food. Many wet foods also have a higher protein and fat content than dry foods, which can help to support a dog's digestive health and reduce inflammation in the gut. Additionally, wet food may be easier to flavor with natural ingredients that can be beneficial for dogs with colitis, such as pumpkin, bone broth, or probiotics. These ingredients can help to soothe the digestive tract, promote healthy gut bacteria, and improve nutrient absorption. However, not all wet foods are created equal, and some may contain ingredients that can worsen colitis symptoms in some dogs. It's important to read labels carefully and choose high-quality wet food that is appropriate for your dog's specific health needs.

More on Dog Stomach Health

6 Most Common Causes of Constipation in Dogs
Caring for a Sick Dog: The Dos (And the Dont's)
Why Chocolate is Bad for Dogs

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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