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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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Mr. Biggs

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Yorkie

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4 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

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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Annie

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Aussiedoodle

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5 Months

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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

Annie began having diarrhea 3 days ago. She has been on the same diet-TLC since she transitioned from her mom. She does like to put things in her mouth. I didn’t see her ingest anything. I took her to the vet the 1st day of occurrence. The diarrhea persists despite the medication. She is day 3 out of 10 for this. They did take a rectal specimen but she moved and there was very little stool on the instrument. I wasn’t told if any parasites. Her bowel movement is not urgent. She goes every 4-6 hours. It is a liquid stool with no form. When should I take her back? She is active with no sign of illness except for the diarrhea.

March 29, 2018

Annie's Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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If Annie is still having diarrhea three days into the treatment, it would be best to have her rechecked tomorrow to see why it isn't resolving. Normally, mild colitis resolves with medication, although i am not sure what medication she is on. I hope that things clear up for her, soon.

March 29, 2018

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Tuco

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Boston Terrier

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3 Months

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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
Lack Of Appetite

Hello, I figured this was worth a try since my parents are running out of options and we are left scratching our heads at every turn. We purchased my parents a Boston Terrier puppy as a Christmas gift since they unfortunately had to put down their 11 year-old BT in October. The breeder was reputable and other family members of ours have dogs from the same home over the years. He weighed about 3.4 lbs when they received him on Christmas and ever since, he’s been losing weight and has been back and forth to the vet many times. Initially, he was given antibiotic to help with a bacterial overgrowth in his system that was causing lack of appetite and chronic diarrhea. This seemed to help but the puppy doesn’t have much appetite and continues to have diarrhea. They checked for a type of issue with the liver (pardon my lack of specifics) and tests came back fine. Steroids were given, an enzyme for something with the pancreas all to no avail. He is currently at the animal hospital and is being referred to a nearby larger city for another diagnosis. Other than the aforementioned issues, the puppy is very smart, active and has been learning house training very well. We are all mystified, as is the vet, as to what the issue could be. I’m just curious if there is any other insight you could provide. My main fear is that nothing can be done and there may be something very seriously wrong. While this is a potential, I hope and pray that it is not the case. Thank you in advance.

Feb. 5, 2018

Tuco's Owner

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It seems like Tuco’s Veterinarian has covered a lot of bases with the treatments given all ready covering small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, checked for liver, bile duct and kidney disorders among other tests performed. It is possible that there is a malabsorption disorder but from this point it would be a case of either having faecal tests done or having a biopsy taken to check the villi of the intestines to look for abnormalities (atrophy etc…). Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Feb. 5, 2018

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Zenji

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French Bulldog

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4 Years

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Mild severity

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1 found helpful

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

Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Diarrhea
Increased Appetite
Skinny
Not Drinking Water
Greasy Stool
Smelly Flatulence
Fat Storage

Hello. We have a 4 year old French Bulldog who has been maintaining his weight, but losing muscle or not being able to store fat as his body seems to be decreasing in mass over the past few months. He has been battling DCM and went into heart failure around 9 months ago, but has positively progressed due to a taurine defiency causing the disease and should be cleared soon according to our cardiologist. The main issue is the GI problems that result in Diarrhea, Greasy Stools, and Smelly flatulences over the past few months. We are on probiotics, digestive enzymes, omega 3's and other antioxidant and vitamin supplements. His appetite has increased. His blood tests showed a healthy dog and no signs of EPI. We do not know the next step other than starting on a new diet that features rabbit, lentils and veggies. Thanks for your time

Feb. 2, 2018

Zenji's Owner


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When I started to read the first half of your questions I was thinking pancreatic disorders, but if there is no signs of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and Zenji is already being given probiotics and digestive enzymes we can rule these issues out. There are other issues like malabsorption but this would need to be tested separately and may involve examination of faeces or a biopsy of intestine. If you have exhausted other diets, the rabbit/lentils/vegetable diet may just produce the same results; but give it a try anyway. I would look into tests to determine nutrient absorption to either make a diagnosis or rule it out as a cause. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Feb. 2, 2018

What types of tests are done in this particular case involving the feces or what would it be called when looking to have it done? And what types of doctors should we be looking at contacting to diagnose this problem? Thanks for your help

Feb. 3, 2018

Zenji's Owner

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Sugar

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Golden Retriever

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13 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Weight Loss

I have a female Golden Retriever that's coming up on 13 years of age. She's had some seizures in the past that are under control. Last year she started vomiting, losing energy, and breathing heavily. Took her to the Vet, XRays, Ultrasound, Blood work, and ended at Doggie ER near where I live. They said her esophagus was constricted, and had pneumonia. She spent about a week in hospital. After she got out she can't bark. Lately, she's begun her chuffing again is losing weight despite the fact that her diet hasn't changed. I'm giving her a combination of kibble, soft dog food, boiled white rice and boiled chicken. I suspect she's not absorbing the nutrients in the food. Is there anything I can do to increase absorption? How about Yogur?

Jan. 24, 2018

Sugar's Owner

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If there is a malabsorption problem, it would depend on what the specific cause was; lack of digestive enzymes, villous atrophy among other causes may lead to nutrients not being absorbed. Also, underlying health problems (liver disease, kidney disease, cancer, hormonal conditions among others) may also have an impact on weight as well; this is something which would need to be discussed with your Veterinarian to come to a diagnosis so that the right path can be taken as for as treatment or management is concerned. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

Jan. 25, 2018

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Missy

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Terrier mix

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5 Months

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Mild severity

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

Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Constant Hunger,
Corprophagia
Frequent Movements

We rescued a dog from a group that takes in strays from Puerto Rico. She was 4 weeks on the street when they found her. At about 12 weeks, they allowed us to adopt her. She's a little terrier mix. She eats CONSTANTLY...but poops upwards of 5 times a day. And I'm always surprised at how much she, ya know...goes. She IS growing and gaining weight. However, the snow has melted here and I've caught her eating grass. The other day she tried to eat my other dog's poop right as he was going. She has energy in spades. I'm just wondering if maybe something is wrong with her digestion that she is always famished, eats, and then goes so much. We are a bit strapped so I'd like to do as few tests as possible, but I do want to get her what she needs. I should add that she is a bit of a lemon, the poor dear. constant eye infections, one ear infection (Yeast) and a bacterial skin condition which may or may not return.

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Tova

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Weimaraner Cross staffidshore bull terrier

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16 Months

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

Fair severity

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1 found helpful

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

Fair severity

Has Symptoms

Weight Loss
Trash Eating

We switched our dogs food from Purina to Arden grange about four months ago due to her not eating. She eats great now but has lost weight and is scavenging like crazy. She’s always been greedy but is being excessively so, even going in the bin which she’s never done before even though I’ve upped her amount of food. She’s wormed regularly and is fine in every other way and her stools are normal. Should I be worried?

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Aria

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German Shepherd

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2 Years

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

Mild severity

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1 found helpful

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

Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Gas
Loose Bowel Movements

In April this year, my dog Aria got incredibly sick. She was vomiting a dark, foul smelling sludge and had diarrhea for weeks at a time. We were in and out of the vet's office so many times. X-rays, testing for EPI, testing liver functionality, full-panel blood test, parasite test, and more. Everything came back normal each and every time. We finally found an outside source that tested her for food intolerances and we found out that she was highly intolerant to chicken, corn, potatoes, and venison (and many more things). All of these were ingredients in the foods we were trying (including the vet RX foods). We finally found a food that worked for her and she stabilized and doesn't throw up anymore. However, she still has gas and loose stools every once in a while. We have her on a good dog food and only give her fresh foods as treats. She also takes FortiFlora and a digestive enzyme with her meals. Any ideas?

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