Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs

Written By hannah hollinger
Published: 06/10/2017Updated: 01/12/2022
Veterinary reviewed by Michele K.
Intestinal Malabsorption in Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost

What is Intestinal Malabsorption?

Intestinal malabsorption occurs because of an 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 common 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.

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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

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 food sensitivity

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 appropriately 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.

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; in addition, changes in your pet’s diet may be necessary. Adding to your dog’s diet with 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.  Meals should be regular and good quality. Depending on the cause, an injection of vitamin 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. 

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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.

Intestinal Malabsorption Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals


Beagle basset mix





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0 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Losing Weight / Eating Poop
My dog is starting to lose weight and has been eating his poop. I am concerned he isn't getting the nutrients and is eating his poop to try and get the nutrients. He is getting older but he is losing weight. He seems to have his normal energy and still runs around like he always has but I just want him to be healthy and not losing weight

Sept. 27, 2020

Answered by Dr. Michele K. DVM

0 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. Since I cannot see him, It would be best to have your pet seen by a veterinarian, as they can examine them, see what might be going on, and help with any lab testing or treatment that he might needs as he ages.

Oct. 12, 2020

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Great dane mix



13 weeks


0 found this helpful


0 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Malnutrition, Chronic Diarrhea
What else can I DO?

July 27, 2020

Answered by Dr. Michele K. DVM

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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