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Ask the Vet: What is Stress-Induced Colitis in Dogs?

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Stress-Induced Colitis in Dogs

Stress-induced colitis in dogs is a condition that may go from being annoying to even necessitating veterinary attention in the worst case scenario. Here's the thing: stress can sure play a number on dogs and one of the most vulnerable organs is the digestive tract. If your dog develops diarrhea after being boarded or when going to a dog show, suspect the role of stress, after having ruled out other possibilities such as abrupt dietary changes or eating something from the trash. In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec explains colitis in dogs caused by stress and how it impacts dogs.

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What is Stress-Induced Colitis in Dogs?

Colitis is an inflammation of the colon (the largest part of the large intestines) and it is the cause of over half of all cases of chronic diarrhea in dogs.

In the past, it was postulated, but today it is well-established that dogs can suffer from stress-induced acute diarrhea, sometimes popularly referred to as nervous colitis, spastic colitis or irritable bowel syndrome.

The stress-induced colitis is classified as a motility disorder in which the intestinal muscle action is triggered and affected by anxiety.

Usually, when a dog shows signs of colitis the first things that come to mind are dietary indiscretions (eating spoiled foods), bacterial and viral infections, parasitic infestations and food-related allergies and intolerances.

However, recently, clinical reports suggest that there is a more common cause for colitis in dogs – that is stress. In fact, stress is the most common cause of colitis in adult dogs with their vaccines up to date.

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Indeed, today, the most frequently diagnosed form of colitis in dogs is the stress-induced colitis. As previously mentioned, colitis is an infection of the colon and it is a particularly common among pet dogs. It is a popular misconception that colitis is a disease. In fact, it is a symptom suggesting that something more serious is going on.

When the colon becomes inflamed, its normal functioning is either partially or completely impaired. Namely, the colon has two important roles – absorbing water and storing fecal matter. Once inflamed, its ability to absorb water is diminished and its capacity to store fecal matter is decreased. This results in the tell-tale sign of colon-related frequent diarrhea.

In general, colitis can be classified as either acute or chronic. However, the stress-induced colitis is almost always acute. The stress-induced colitis has an abrupt onset and it almost always follows a stressful situation.

Dogs Predisposed to Colitis Due to Stress 

Many events can act as triggers and lead to stress-induced colitis. The most common triggers are upheavals at home, moving, travelling, spending time at boarding facilities, being separated from household members, severe weather and lifestyle changes.

Anything that causes an abrupt change in a dog's everyday routine can be considered a trigger. Adding a new member to the household, either a human baby or a pet baby, is a common stress trigger. As intriguing as it sounds, dogs have been known to grieve the departure of family members. Therefore, the death of a family member can induce a bout of stress colitis in dogs.

In a nutshell, dogs are more sensitive than we think. Sometimes, something as simple as re-arranging furniture in the living room can cause stress and trigger the condition.

It should be accented that even positive events can lead to stress-induced colitis. Namely, when a dog is overly excited, its body releases two hormones – cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are also released when the body responds to stress. Therefore, any event that triggers the release of the stress hormones can eventually lead to stress-induced colitis.

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Signs of Stress-induced Colitis in Dogs 

A dog with colitis is likely to show the following signs and symptoms:

  • Diarrhea – this is quite expected, dogs with inflamed colon will have diarrhea. However, it should be noted that the diarrhea’s characteristics such as frequency and quantity are unique when the problem is located in colon. For example, dogs with colitis will pass small amounts of diarrhea but extremely frequently. Additionally, when originating from the colon, the diarrhea is likely to be loose, watery and covered in a jelly-like substance scientifically known as mucus. A certain amount of bright, red blood may also be noticed.
  • Straining (squatting or hunching) either before or after defecating
  • Vomiting
  • Changes in the appetite – decreased appetite or complete loss of interest
  • Abdominal pain and cramping – manifested with abnormal posture and grunting or crying upon touch
  • Recurring flatulence
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

At the Vet's Office

Diagnosing stress-induced conditions in dogs is much more complicated than it is in humans. Basically, once the vet performs the initial physical exam, based on the findings, he will be able to rule out other potential causes of colitis.

If the history, provided by the owner, indicates that a traumatic event occurred, the vet will be able to set the diagnosis and initiate proper treatment.

The diarrhea associated with stress-induced colitis is treated as any other diarrhea – that is symptomatically.

Generally speaking, a dog with diarrhea should be allowed to drink, but you should withhold food from it for at least a few hours. Re-hydration with fluid therapy is essential in prolonged cases.

The use of protectants and adsorbents such as activated charcoal is relatively controversial – while some specialists say they are of no value, many vets feel that they are a useful component of the treatment.

There is similar lack of agreement on diet. Some experts recommend feeding the dog’s regular diet, in order to provide familiar food for the "good" bacteria in the intestines, but others recommend that an easy-to-digest meal, such as boiled chicken and rice, is more beneficial.

Antibiotics are seldom used unless the diarrhea has become chronic and secondary bacterial infection is suspected. The use of probiotics formulated specifically for dogs is extremely beneficial.

The symptomatic treatment is efficient, but only temporarily. On the long-run, the key to addressing the problem is determining the source of stress. Ideally, once identified, the source of stress should be removed. If the source cannot be removed, the goal would be to support your dog through the crisis with proper training. In more severe cases, when training is not enough, it might be necessary to talk to your trusted vet about prescribing you sedatives.

As in any other case, preventing is easier than treating. Training your dog to cope with potentially stressful events proves highly beneficial on the long run. However, the training should be initiated when the dog is just a young puppy. Plus, proper training requires time and patience.

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

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