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What is Intestinal Malabsorption?

Intestinal malabsorption occurs because of some underlying disorder within the small bowel or the pancreas. While your dog may be eating and even eating well, he is not getting the vital nutrients he needs from the food. This leads to ill-health, weight loss, and other complications. One of the most critical symptoms is chronic diarrhea. If your dog is displaying these signs, you need to take your pet to the nearest veterinarian for treatment.

Intestinal Malabsorption is a deficiency or inability within your dog’s system to absorb nutrients within the digestive tract resulting in malnourishment despite a good appetite.

Symptoms of Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

Depending on the cause, the breed and age of your pet, the variety of symptoms can vary considerably between affected dogs.

  • Eating of unusual things such as trash
  • Weight loss despite insatiable appetite 
  • Frequent smelly stools of high volume that look oily 
  • Noisy stomach with rumbling and gurgling sounds 
  • Flatulence
  • Depression
  • Lack of energy 
  • Poor  haircoat that may be shabby and scruffy
  • Chronic diarrhea 
  • Vomiting
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Causes of Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

The main function of the small intestine is for digestion and to absorb nutrients from the food eaten by your dog. Absorption of the food occurs in three phases; intraluminal digestion, mucosal digestion and absorption, and then delivery around the body of the nutrients. The disease can interfere with any part of this function rendering your dog unable to benefit from the food it eats.

  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency  
  • Inflammatory bowel disease  
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth
  • Obstruction or blockages (tumors or growths) involving the lymphatic system of the gastrointestinal tract; the result is a loss of protein causing profound low protein levels within your dog’s body
  • Idiopathic villous atrophy within the small intestine; villi are invisible to the human eye and are hairlike structures that are the absorption surface of the bowel (sometimes these villi are poorly developed causing malabsorption) 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease is suspected to have started from a compromised immune system caused by the inflamed or destroyed intestinal mucosa 
  • Shortened bowel syndrome occurs after a large portion has been removed from the intestinal tract as a result of health issues; the remaining bowel is unable to function normally and malabsorption develops
  • Infectious agents such as viral and fungal infections and parasites that proliferate once inside the body 
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the intestines of the normal intestinal bacteria
  • Dietary causes such as wheat sensitivity
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Diagnosis of Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

Your dog needs veterinary help if it is exhibiting any of the signs listed above. Your veterinarian will need to do tests to determine where the problem area is. As so many conditions and disease all have similar symptoms, it is wise to get the tests done to isolate the cause and allow treatment to begin. If the specialist thinks it may be exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, blood tests for B12 and folate can be done to isolate the problem area. With suspected IBD it is wise to ensure your dog is well dewormed. Dietary measures will then be suggested and monitored. If these measures fail to provide relief, other tests may be advised. 

Fecal cultures, ultrasound, endoscopy and biopsies, and full thickness bowel biopsies may need to be done. It is rare that your dog would have all these tests done; often the veterinarian can find the cause from one or two types of testing and the less invasive for your dog, the better.

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Treatment of Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

It depends on the cause of the problem as to the treatment to administer. If your dog is diagnosed with villous atrophy, he can be prescribed a gluten free diet to ease the condition. Bacterial overgrowth is treated via a broad spectrum oral antibiotic. Tylosin, oxytetracycline, and metronidazole are the common choices for antibiotics; in addition, changes in your pet’s diet will be necessary. Adding to your dog’s diet with live cultured yogurt products and probiotics can greatly assist your pet's condition. Often treatment is for life, focusing on your pets’ diet, regular medication and supplements. 

For exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, a pancreatic extract such as lypex or pancrex will be needed. If these are in a capsule form, open the capsule and sprinkle the contents over the food.  Meals should be regular and good quality. With EPI, an injection with B12 may be necessary once a week. Because intestinal malabsorption can originate from many and varied causes, treatment is specific to that underlying disorder, and each type of cause requires a different therapy. The most often treatments involve dietary modification, antibiotic therapy, anti-inflammatory treatment, pancreatic enzyme replacement and chemotherapy in advanced cases. 

Medication can reduce inflammation of the bowel – steroids and H2 antagonists (Tagamet) can help with that area. While German Shepherds and Chinese Shar-peis are often subject to these conditions, other dogs can be affected as well.

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Recovery of Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

Once your dog is home from his trip to the veterinary clinic, you will need to continue to administer the medication provided and make modifications to your pet’s diet. Recovery will take some time, but if no improvement is noticeable within two weeks, you need to contact your veterinarian for an update. Always give the medication as advised, and control the diet as a simple lapse could see the condition flaring up again. Easy to absorb meals at regular times are necessary to get your dog through this adjustment. Record the symptoms that your dog is experiencing so that you can report back to the specialist. You should see a reduction in diarrhea and a slight increase in weight after a few weeks, and your dog’s overall condition should improve. If in doubt about anything, contact your veterinarian immediately.

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Intestinal Malabsorption Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Ask a Vet

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Great dane mix

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13 weeks

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Unknown severity

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Malnutrition, Chronic Diarrhea

What else can I DO?

July 27, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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0 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. Unfortunately, without knowing the history of your puppy, or what tests have been run and what findings exist on examination, it is hard for me to say what might be next as far as steps to take. It would be best to have your dog seen by a veterinarian, as most things in young puppies are treatable, and get their advice on what the next step might be. There are some parasites that can cause this, intestinal infections, or foreign bodies, and those are things that they may need to check for. I hope that your dog recovers soon and is happy and healthy.

July 27, 2020

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Black Betty

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Staffordshire Bull Terrier

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15 Years

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Moderate severity

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0 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Diarrhea

Hi I have a nearly 15 year old English staffie that 8kg in the last 6 months. She has diarrhoea immediately after a meal. I have had bloods & an X-ray & vet says she just old. I have been feeding her twice a day because she is barking for food. She is happy in herself. Someone suggested to me it might be this malabsorption issue. Just wondering what when & how much to feed her? Should I be putting some probiotics or other supplements into her diet to help? If so how much? She is down to 10.5kg very boney.

Sept. 10, 2018

Black Betty's Owner

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Pebbles

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Mini Aussie

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3 Weeks

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Moderate severity

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0 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Constipation

3 week old puppy slowed way down on growing ,bloated belly , constipated still nurses . Vet did ex-ray and looked like nothing really going thru small intestine. We put her on laxative every 8 hours last 3 days . She has had 3 very small bowel movements that are almost black in color and sticky no real smell. Does not cry ,not dehydrated, not real active but will try to walk and nibble on my finger. I would really like to save this pup but don’t know what to do from here . They will not do exploratory surgery to young

June 29, 2018

Pebbles' Owner

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There are a few different causes for a lack of intestinal motility in dogs, however many of them show on x-ray or are easily identifiable. Neuromuscular disorders, electrolyte imbalances, dysautonomia among others; it can be very difficult to narrow in on a specific cause in these cases especially in such a young pup. I cannot think of anything to suggest for Pebbles at this time. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

June 29, 2018

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Charlie

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American Cocker Spaniel

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8 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Initial visit to vet for acute onset of diarrhea with blood. Blood work showed only elevated WBC and NEU. All other normal. Weight at time of visit 30 lbs. 2 lbs lost since last visit. He had a fever. X-ray showed empty bowel small and large but with full of air. Started 250mg metronidazole 1/2 tablet 2xs a day, lomotil 2.5 mg 2xs a day. FortiFlora packet once a day. Told to put on bland diet chicken and rice. However he is allergic to chicken so gave rice with beef broth. After 3 days slight improvement but by 5th day back to beginning. No parasites and giardia antigen test negative. Stoped rice since he has not had rice in diet for 6 years and just gave boiled turkey for last 3 days. Stools semi formed extremely soft size of pointer finger. 24 hours between bowel movement Sunday and Monday. Lost 1 1/2 lb. weighs 28.6. Vet wants to do an expensive malabsorption test. Since enzymes were normal on initial blood work and weight was maintained until this acute onset a week ago is this test a waste of money? Especially since blood work suggested bacterial infection due to wbc elevated and fever. Does he need to be given more time to recover and was the dosage of metronidazole proper amount for 30 lb. weight?

June 25, 2018

Charlie's Owner

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There are many different possible causes for diarrhoea (with or without blood) in dog which do include infections, parasites, dietary intolerance, poisoning, foreign objects, stress, some cancers among other causes; sometimes it can be very difficult to narrow in on a cause as their may appear to be no logical cause for the diarrhoea. Further testing is required, but it needs to be indicated (reason to do the test) especially for expensive tests; your Veterinarian may notice some other symptoms indicating the need to test for malabsorption, however it may be worth having another Veterinarian look at Charlie in case they come up with a different line of testing. The dosage of metronidazole works out to be around 5mg/lb which is the minimum dosage used in dogs. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

June 26, 2018

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Mr. Biggs

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Yorkie

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4 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Very Bad Breath
Insatiable Appetite
Black Tarry Stool
Walks In Circles Constantly

Rescued a yorkie, he was very anxious and scared. Now, 2 months later, he is improving. He has an odd behavior, he walks in circles. He has an insatiable appetite, horrible breath and lately dark, tarry stool. Any ideas?

May 20, 2018

Mr. Biggs' Owner

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0 Recommendations

The dark tarry stool is concerning since it indicates a bleed in the upper gastrointestinal tract; also the circling may be due to behavioural issues, liver disease, neurological conditions, hormonal conditions among other causes. Without giving Mr. Biggs a thorough examination I cannot determine the underlying cause in this case but would highly recommend a visit to a Veterinarian for an examination and treatment. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

May 20, 2018

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Wickett

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Mutt

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4 Years

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Critical severity

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pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Critical severity

Has Symptoms

Diarrhea
Weight Loss
No Appetite

Please help me if anyone can. My dog has been progressively getting worse since September and we don’t know what to do. He has no appetite most of the time but will sporadically eat quite a bit at a time before going back to not eating or drinking at all. He has lost a LOT of weight and has no energy anymore, but he was once a very energetic dog. The vet has run several tests but cannot find an answer for what is wrong with him, all we know is that he is dying. The only medications that I know for sure he has received have been B-12 shots and some kind of antibiotic.

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Eli

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English Bulldog

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6 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Vomiting Weight Loss Constant

My dog has always been healthy then one day he started vomiting..diarrhea..blood in stool and weight loss..loss of fur and just laying around..I spent $5800 at University of Penn in Philadelphia vet hospital and they are guessing it’s an absorption problem or cancer..after spending $5800 I couldn’t afford anymore tests..they wanted to check for masses or absorption problem..they sent my dog home with injectable steroids..medication for vomiting..meds for blood clots and injectable B12..he now after 5 weeks of watery diarrhea has solid stool..no more vomiting..no more blood in stool and he has lots of energy..he’s on royal cainin low fat and hills I/d low fat food and all is looking good but my question is what does it sound like???and what is the cause???they did ultrasound..bloodwork..fecal test..it was a lot to take in but they said his white blood cells and protein were a concern..please help

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Thora

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Mastiff

dog-age-icon

5 Years

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Fair severity

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pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Fair severity

Has Symptoms

Diarrhea
Weight Loss
Vomiting

We decided to adopt a 6 month old mastiff box mix about 5 yrs ago. It was told to us by the person we adopted from she has a grain intolerance and would beem special grain free food.... She would occasionally puke and have diarrhea if she was given table scrapes so that was a must stop when friends would come over. Last year we moved and went to a new vet. This vet told me that my dogs needed off grain free because the fda was saying it impacted dogs hearts. So not waiting them to suffer we changed to a non grain free food.... She surprisingly didnt do too badly ..... However.... We started to notice her weight decrease and her looking very thin. I am not thinking of placing her back on grain free because mayek she is not absorbing thr Her poop is solid some times and sometimes looks like a cows poop. She has occasionally vomited in the early morning dark brown watery mucasy vomit. Altogether in a year or less she has dropped 17lbs. We took her back to our old vet beacuse she moved back. She was shocked at how thin she was. She did blood tests. Her blood test came back with high white cells indicating infection so she put her on antibiotics for a week gave her a steriod shot and a B12 shot. We went back for a weight check and we were only up .2lbs. She sent us home with oral steriods for 21 days. Thora has vomited 2 times in a week and has loose stool. I feed her at least 3 times a day with an addition of wet food to her prescription dog food. Still not sure if anything is working does not seem to be gaining weight.

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Thora

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Mastiff

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5 Years

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Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Weight Loss

We decided to adopt a 6 month old mastiff box mix about 5 yrs ago. It was told to us by the person we adopted from she has a grain intolerance and would beem special grain free food.... She would occasionally puke and have diarrhea if she was given table scrapes so that was a must stop when friends would come over. Last year we moved and went to a new vet. Thid vet told me that my dogs needed off grain free beca2 thr fda was saying it impacted dogs hearts. So not waiting them to suffer we changed to a non grain free food.... She surprisingly didnt do too badly ..... However.... We started to notice her weight decrease and her looking very thin. I am not thinking of placing her back on grain free because mayne she is not absorbing thr food. He poop is solid. I need help with her ...

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Storm

dog-breed-icon

Beagle

dog-age-icon

3 Years

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Critical severity

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pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Critical severity

Has Symptoms

Weight Loss
Lethargy
Hair Loss
No Energy
Scabs

My dog Storm has become suddenly extremely ill, she just turned 3 years old. It started with excessive drooling and then diarrhea and vomiting, which has stopped but she can not gain weight and lost a lot of it. She still has her appetite but seems to be not absorbing anything. All test results including blood work for pancreas have come back normal. She now is getting patches of scabs on her that are pussing and losing hair that is not growing back. Any idea of what this could be?

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