“Mom, Cookie threw up on the carpet again!”
“Honey, Daisy had diarrhea on the patio. It’s your turn to clean it up.”
“Why doesn’t Max want to go for walks anymore? He’s getting so skinny.”
Does your family have these kinds of conversations on a regular basis? If so, it’s time to load up your furry friend in the car, pray to God she can make the short drive to the vet’s office without making your car smell like a gas station bathroom, and find out if your pooch has Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
What is Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)?
IBD isn’t actually a disease; it’s a collective term that refers to a group of gastrointestinal diseases that result in inflamed cells within the gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately (not from a lack of trying), the medical community has not yet been able to isolate and identify the cause(s) of IBD in animals or in humans. The dominant theory as to the cause of IBD is that the cells in the GI tract are hypersensitive to particular foods, bacteria, parasites or some other foreign element introduced to the GI tract. So basically, the idea is that the lining of your dog’s GI tract is probably allergic to something. If this is true, however, it would still beg the question, “Why are the cells in this particular dog’s GI tract hypersensitive to this particular food?” At this point, nobody really knows.
A dog that is vomiting, having diarrhea, and losing weight is a pretty good candidate for an IBD diagnosis. If your vet does diagnose your dog with IBD (usually by taking a biopsy), the good news is that IBD isn’t generally life threatening. It is, however, serious because your dog is probably quite uncomfortable—do you think your dog wants to throw up on your grandma’s handmade quilt?—and because IBD affects how well your dog’s digestive system can absorb necessary nutrients. So, you can’t cure IBD, but for your dog’s health and happiness and for the wellbeing of your expensive Persian rug, with your vet’s help you are going to have to try to manage it.
Medical Treatments for IBD in Dogs
It is likely that your vet will begin treatment by giving your dog a deworming medication, even if you give your dog monthly preventative. You need to be absolutely certain that it isn’t intestinal worms that are causing the problem. The next thing your vet will probably do is prescribe a special dog food that is made for dogs with IBD. Finally, the most aggressive treatment that your vet may suggest is immunosuppression using steroids. After all, if your dog’s immune system is, in essence, too active, then perhaps it will help to weaken the immune system enough to bring it back down to fairly normal levels of sensitivity. Immunosuppression often comes with side effects, however.
Are There Natural Treatments for Dogs With IBD?
Sometimes medicine is the best answer for a dog with severe IBD. But what about dogs with milder cases, dogs that don’t handle immunosuppression very well, and dogs that might benefit from a combination of medication and holistic treatments? Maybe after talking to your vet, you might want to try some of the following natural treatments to see if they help your dog’s IBD symptoms.
No matter what you decide to do overall, this is where you start with IBD management. If your dog’s GI tract is hypersensitive to something, or at least irritated by something, the most natural thing to do is to try to figure out what that might be and then remove it from your dog’s diet. Try a food with a different grain in it or, perhaps, no grain at all. For instance, you may find that your dog has more IBD symptoms when she eats food with a lot of wheat in it, but seems to feel a bit better when she eats a rice-based food. You might find the same thing with different kinds of meats—lamb bothers him, but chicken doesn’t—or even different brands of food. You may not be able to explain why one brand gives your dog diarrhea while another doesn’t, but if it works, hey, who cares if you know why? Also, high levels of saturated fat are known to cause IBD flare ups. Can that be cut down? In addition, it might help to split up your dog’s food into several small meals throughout the day. One or two big meals might be tough on your dog’s inflamed digestive system.
Your dog’s gut (like yours) is full of bacteria. What you want is for it to be the right bacteria in the right balance. Make sure to use probiotic products—powders, capsules, chews, food—that are made specifically for dogs rather than trying to share your probiotic supplements with your dog. Helping your dog’s gut regain microbial balance may lessen his IBD symptoms.
Spirulina (Blue-Green Algae)
You can buy veterinary spirulina supplements, which has been used for hundreds or thousands of years. This algae has been used for its detoxifying and anti-inflammatory effects and because it is high in essential fatty acids.
This is what you picture when you think of a person stirring spoonfuls of fiber powder into a cup of water. Psyllium is a soluble fiber that comes from the husks of the plantago ovata plant, and it works by absorbing water in the intestines, which helps the stool to be bulkier and less runny. You have to be a bit careful with psyllium, however, because sometimes high amounts of fiber can actually be a trigger for a dog with IBD. Talk with your vet about appropriate dosages.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These fats, most common in fish oils, may have anti-inflammatory effects on your dog’s body. You can buy this as a supplement, which can be mixed into your dog’s food, or there are commercial dog foods that have it as an ingredient. Studies are a bit mixed on the efficacy of these oils, but a lot of vets and doctors swear by them.
Boswellia & Curcumin
When combined, these two herbs may have anti-inflammatory effects, which may help to reduce IBD symptoms in your dog. These can be found in versions made for your dog, and may be packaged in a way that focuses on helping dogs with arthritis.
Whatever You Do, Be Gentle
Have a conversation with your vet, do some research, ask friends what they’ve done. No matter what else you do, remember that the gastrointestinal tract is generally a part of the body that responds best when changes are introduced gradually over time. Although your dog may benefit from a change in diet or the introduction of supplements, she probably won’t handle it well if the changes are sudden and drastic. Keep a journal, noting what you did for your dog and how it’s working (or not). Look for patterns and share this information with your dog’s vet.
Whatever you do, be gentle with your dog, the same way you’d want someone to be gentle with you in the same situation. In the meantime, it might not be a bad idea to stock up on carpet cleaner and paper towels.