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5 Common Gastrointestinal Conditions in Purebred Dogs

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By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 12/22/2021, edited: 12/22/2021

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Overview

Stomach and intestinal problems can occur with any dog, whether they are purebred or mixed. Infectious conditions that are caused by bacteria and viruses can result in GI disease regardless of heredity. However, there are some breeds that are congenitally predisposed to certain gastrointestinal conditions.

For example, gluten-sensitive intestinal disease, related to the presence of wheat gluten and other cereal peptides in the diet, was once predominant in Irish Setters. While awareness of this specific gene resulted in breeding methods that effectively eliminated the affected hereditary line, there are still several breeds that show up again and again in descriptions of other stomach problems.

In some breeds, a predisposition appears only in breed subsets. For instance, while not all Spaniels are more likely to contract parvovirus, young English Springer Spaniels seem to be vulnerable to the virus. 

Is your purebred predisposed to a digestive issue? Check out these 5 gastrointestinal problems that are most common among purebreds to see if your papered pooch is at risk.


Parvovirus

Parvovirus is a potentially fatal disease that appears in puppies and unvaccinated adult dogs. It’s transmitted by direct contact and is extremely contagious, causing small intestine inflammation, bloody diarrhea, and a reduction in the white blood cells that specifically fight viral infections. It’s most common in Rottweilers, American Pit Bull Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, English Springer Spaniels, and German Shepherds.

Some dogs may be infected without any symptoms, but can still carry the disease to other pups. A stressful event such as boarding or nutrition problems can cause the disease to emerge in otherwise asymptomatic dogs.  

Symptoms

  • Dullness and lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fever

  • Vomiting

  • Bloody diarrhea

  • Abdominal pain caused by blocked intestines

Causes

The microorganisms that cause parvovirus disease are the CPV-1 or CPV-2 virus, thought to be related to the feline panleukopenia virus. Surfaces and objects containing the virus may remain infected for long periods of time, possibly years. Therefore, disinfection of infected areas, shoes, and other surfaces is critical to prevent transmission via:

  • Direct contact with an infected dog

  • Contact with a person caring for infected dogs

  • Contact with infected feces or surfaces they may have touched

  • Contact with infected food and water bowls, collars, leashes, and other objects

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of parvovirus is made by a complete history of symptoms and a physical exam, and is confirmed by positive fecal and blood tests that show the virus is in the dog’s blood or feces. 

Treatment

While there is no treatment to eliminate the virus, the veterinarian will provide supportive care to replace lost fluids and minerals. Intravenous fluids may be administered, along with medications to stop vomiting. If there is a secondary infection, antibiotics may be given, and the dog is started on a bland diet for 1 to 2 weeks. If the pup can’t eat, a feeding tube may be placed to feed them at the veterinary clinic.

Strict isolation of the infected dog is necessary, and all surfaces must be disinfected with bleach. Preventive vaccinations are typically given when a puppy is 6 to 8 weeks, at 10 to 12 weeks, and again at 14 to 16 weeks old, with a 1-year booster repeated every 3 years.

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $2,000

Bloat

Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), is a condition in which the stomach rotates on itself after a large meal or large amounts of water just prior to exercising. The condition results in trapped gas, food, or liquid in the stomach, causing pain and sometimes shock. Bloat is considered an emergency. 

Most often seen in deep-chested dogs, bloat is a heritable tendency in Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Standard Poodles, Great Danes, St. Bernards, Irish Setters, Weimaraners, Basset Hounds, and Gordon Setters.

Symptoms

  • Restlessness

  • Apparent discomfort

  • Rapid breathing

  • Dry retching

  • Excessive drooling

In cases where bloat causes shock, symptoms can also include:

  • Rapid, weak pulse

  • Pale mucous membranes

  • Irregular heartbeat

Causes

A combination of physical build, personality, eating habits, and predisposition comprise the many causes of bloat. Causes include:

  • Direct familial connection with a dog who has had GDV

  • Body contours that include a narrow, deep chest

  • Exercising directly after consuming a large meal or drinking a large amount of water

  • Increasing age

  • A dog who has had their spleen removed 

  • Stress, aggressiveness

  • Delayed gastric emptying

  • Gulping of food

  • A dry diet rich in fats and oils

  • Swallowing air when eating

Diagnosis

Bloat is typically diagnosed by a physical exam and a history of signs and symptoms. The veterinarian may also perform some imaging to demonstrate the twisting of the stomach. 

Treatment

If GDV has caused the dog to go into shock, the veterinarian’s first task is to stabilize them with IV fluids. Once the dog is stabilized, the vet will take measures to decompress the stomach, including passing a gastric tube down the pup’s throat and into the stomach. This will immediately release any gas or air in the stomach and allow liquids or solid contents to be removed. If the gastric tube cannot be passed, a large needle inserted directly into the stomach will accomplish the same end. 

Once the stomach is empty, the doctor may rinse it with warm saline to clear any leftover debris. This is followed by surgery to assess the damage that might have been done to the stomach and spleen. The stomach is repositioned, and in some cases may be attached to the abdominal wall to prevent future occurrences. Occasionally, a damaged spleen will need to be removed.

Postoperatively, medications for pain may be given, and food is withheld for 24 hours. Small, frequent meals are recommended to prevent gastric distension from recurring.

Average cost of treatment: $2,000 - $5,000, without complications.


Gastrointestinal Cancer

Cancer within the gastrointestinal system of dogs is relatively uncommon, but when it does occur, it’s in dogs who are between 6 and 9 years old, and its typically adenocarcinoma or lymphoma

Belgian Shepherds are at high risk for stomach cancers. Colorectal tumors occur most often in Boxers, German Shepherds, Poodles, Great Danes, and Spaniels. These tumors tend to be malignant and spread rapidly.

Symptoms

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weight loss

  • Lethargy

  • Constipation and straining to defecate

  • Anemia demonstrated by pale gums

Causes

Factors that can predispose dogs to gastrointestinal cancers include:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Age, between 6 and 9 years of age

  • Gender: males are more likely to have GI cancer than females

Diagnosis

To diagnose gastrointestinal cancer, a veterinarian will do a complete medical history, followed by a physical examination. By palpating the abdomen, they may be able to feel any tumors. Contrast X-rays with dye will show a tumor, which is generally more dense than the surrounding tissue. Further imaging with abdominal ultrasound may also be useful.

A biopsy to definitely diagnose a suspected cancer and identify its type may be done surgically or through an endoscope. 

Treatment

For most types of GI cancer, surgical removal is the primary treatment, along with chemotherapy in some cases. If the tumor has spread to other parts of the body, chemo is the treatment of choice, although the prognosis may be poor in these cases. Post-surgery, pain medications, antibiotics, intravenous solutions and other supportive care will be administered. Treatment may also include anti-nausea medication.

Average cost of treatment: $3,000 - $12,000


Hemorrhagic Gastroenteritis

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is an inflammatory condition in mostly young, toy, and miniature dogs, including Yorkshire Terriers, Miniature Pinschers, Miniature Poodles, Maltese, and Miniature Schnauzers. Its onset generally is sudden, heralded by vomiting and bloody diarrhea. If not treated quickly and adequately, the condition may progress into dehydration and shock.

Symptoms

The following symptoms may be indicative of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis:

  • Vomiting
  • Bloody diarrhea

  • Loss of appetite

  • Abdominal pain and guarding

  • Shock

  • Fever

Causes

Gastroenteritis can be caused by microorganisms in a dog’s food and environment, including bacteria and viruses. When the condition is severe, inflammation leads to breaks in the intestinal wall and bleeding. It’s also thought that stress plays a role in the onset and severity of the condition.

Diagnosis

When you take your pup to the veterinary clinic with symptoms of gastroenteritis, you can expect the vet to do a complete physical examination and request a verbal history of the dog’s symptoms, when they started, and how long they’ve lasted. Blood tests will be done to determine your dog's general health and look for evidence of infection, such as an elevated white blood cell count. A condition in which there are too many red blood cells compared to the amount of plasma may be identified. The veterinarian will likely also collect a fecal culture that will show signs of infection and blood cells, although typically there is enough blood in the diarrhea to leave little doubt of the hemorrhagic nature of the condition.

Treatment

The treatment for hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is largely supportive, including intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and shock. Antibiotics may be given if the fecal culture has identified treatable bacteria. Your pup will need to stay in the hospital until the IV is discontinued, but can go home with antibiotics or other meds when they’re stable. 

The clinician may recommend a bland diet such as chicken and rice in small amounts until all vomiting has stopped. The amount of food will gradually increase while carefully returning to a regular diet. Because these small dogs are predisposed to this condition, it’s wise to keep a close eye on them going forward to catch any symptoms of a recurrence early.

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $3,500


Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)

Irritable bowel disease (sometimes called irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS) is most common in German Shepherds, Yorkshire Terriers and Cocker Spaniels, but some forms of it occur in Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers, Basenjis, Norwegian Lundehunds and Boxers. The average age of onset is 6 years old, and the condition may come and go.

Symptoms

Gastrointestinal symptoms of IBD include:

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Changes in appetite and weight loss

  • Dark stools (if the stomach and small intestine are involved)

  • Swollen abdomen

  • Abdominal swelling secondary to fluid retention

Causes

The exact cause of irritable bowel disease is unknown, but it’s widely thought to be related to chronic bowel infections. Underlying genetic defects cause a predisposition in certain breeds. 

While the cause may be elusive, there are triggers that seem to occur in many cases:

  • Allergens in a dog’s food

  • Stress 

  • Too much food

  • Indigestible food (like fatty or salty human foods)

  • Chemicals in the environment that are accidentally consumed

  • Antibiotics

  • Tumors or other obstructions

Diagnosis

Because IBD appears to be similar to other gastrointestinal illnesses, a definitive diagnosis may be difficult. A complete physical examination and medical history, followed by blood, urine and fecal testing, will help to narrow the condition down.

Imaging, including abdominal ultrasound, may be performed. Tissue biopsies through surgery or an endoscope will likely finalize the diagnosis. 

Treatment

The goals of treatment are to decrease the vomiting and diarrhea symptoms, improve the pup’s weight by gradually re-introducing food, and reduce the inflammation behind the attack. To this end, treatment will include medications like glucocorticoids and other anti-inflammatory drugs. If parasites are detected during the fecal test, these are treated with antiparasitic drugs and sometimes antibiotics are given for primary or secondary infection.

The vet will recommend an elimination or hypoallergenic diet to treat food allergies or sensitivities. They will also suggest increasing the dog’s fiber intake with high fiber foods like pumpkin added to their diet. Because of the likelihood that the condition may reoccur, follow-up visits and a watchful eye for symptoms are recommended as well.

Average cost of treatment: $500 - $3,000


Be prepared for anything

Gastrointestinal problems can be expensive to treat. If you suspect your dog is at risk of GI conditions, start searching for pet insurance today. Wag!’s pet insurance comparison tool lets you compare plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!


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