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Anxious dog with stress colitis

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Overview

Severity: i Low - Medium
Life stage: All
  • Stress colitis in dogs is brought on by physical or mental stress and anxiety.
  • Symptoms include diarrhea, straining to defecate, blood or mucous in the stool, and increased need to defecate.
  • Treatment may include a bland diet, fluids, probiotics, or medications.
  • Managing anxiety, offering probiotics and calming supplements, and working with a behaviorist can help prevent this condition.

We have all felt the negative impacts of stress on our own bodies, ranging from head colds to headaches and weight gain. Stress can also have harmful effects for our dogs. 

Stress can weaken dogs’ immune systems, cause inflammation throughout their bodies, and can lead to overgrowth of harmful bacteria in their intestines, causing diarrhea or stress colitis. Continue reading to learn about stress colitis in dogs, its cause, symptoms, and treatment options. 

What Is Stress Colitis in Dogs? 

Colitis is inflammation of the colon, or large intestine. Colitis can be acute (short-lived) or chronic (long-lasting). Colitis that is caused by stress, or stress colitis, is a common cause of acute colitis in our canine companions. 

Abrupt dietary changes and infections with parasites are other common causes of acute colitis in dogs.   

What Causes Canine Stress Colitis? 

Any form of stress may cause stress colitis in dogs. Through research on the gut microbiome—the mixture of microorganisms including bacteria and other organisms that live inside the stomach and intestines—we have learned about the negative impact that stress can have. Stress will cause overgrowth of harmful gut bacteria and decreased amounts of beneficial bacteria, which in turn leads to symptoms of intestinal upset like diarrhea [1].  

Stressors that cause colitis can include anything that produces physical stress, such as undergoing surgery or intense exercise, as well as psychological stress, such as staying at a boarding facility, moving to a new home, or introducing a new baby or pet into the household. 

Dogs that are generally more high strung or anxious are likely more prone to developing stress colitis. This can occur in dogs of any age, but it is most commonly seen in younger dogs. No specific breed of dog is known to be at an increased risk of developing stress colitis. 

Symptoms of Stress Colitis in Dogs

Puppy outside going to the bathroom

When the colon becomes inflamed during periods of stress, it stops being able to absorb as much water, leading to diarrhea and a few other characteristic symptoms. 

Signs of stress colitis in dogs include: 

  • Straining to defecate.
  • Defecating more frequently. 
  • Increased urgency to defecate.
  • Mucous in the stool. 
  • Small amounts of fresh (bright red) blood in the stool. 
  • Soft or loose stool (diarrhea). 

Diagnosing Colitis Caused by Stress

There is no specific test for stress colitis in dogs. If your dog is experiencing signs of stress colitis, it is best to take him in to your veterinarian for a physical examination. Your veterinarian will use the history that you provide as well as the exam and fecal testing to help determine if stress colitis is likely. 

At minimum, your veterinarian will recommend performing a test of your dog’s stool to check for parasites. This generally involves fecal floatation, in which a stool sample is mixed with a solution, spun in a centrifuge machine, and allowed to sit for a few minutes. This will cause most parasite eggs, if present, to float to the top of the solution, which is then visualized under a microscope. 

Depending on your dog’s environment, your veterinarian may also recommend running a Giardia ELISA test, an immunological test which is a more sensitive test for giardia, a microscopic parasite. 

If no parasites are found on fecal tests, your dog has signs consistent with acute colitis, and he has a history of a recent stressful event, such as spending time in a boarding facility, your veterinarian will make the diagnosis of stress colitis.  

How To Treat Stress Colitis In Dogs 

Dog being evaluated by veterinarian

The good news is that stress colitis is thought to be a self-limiting disease, meaning it will resolve on its own without any treatment. However, there are diets, medications, and supplements that can help your dog to recover faster. Treatment for stress colitis usually depends on your dog’s symptoms. 

If your dog is mildly dehydrated, subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids may be administered by your veterinarian. Luckily, serious dehydration that requires intravenous fluids and hospitalization is generally not seen in cases of stress colitis. 

A prescription diet formulated for intestinal upset or a home cooked bland diet, such as chicken breast and white rice, may be recommended by your veterinarian. Pet parents will typically need to feed this diet for three to five days, or until symptoms resolve, and then gradually transition back to their dog’s regular diet. 

Probiotics may also be a helpful tool in shortening the duration of stress colitis. Probiotics contain one or more types of beneficial gut bacteria. It is unknown exactly how they work but they are thought to help restore the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Studies have shown that dogs undergoing stress from being kenneled had lower incidences of diarrhea when given probiotics than dogs that were not [2]. 

Since there are many different strains of probiotics and they are not regulated by the FDA, it is important to ask your veterinarian for advice on choosing a probiotic supplement that is backed by research. 

Prebiotics, compounds that help to encourage the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, may also be recommended for the treatment of stress colitis. Most prescription intestinal diets now contain prebiotics or your veterinarian may recommend adding in a prebiotic fiber supplement to your pet’s diet to help with stress colitis. 

Antibiotics like metronidazole are still commonly prescribed for acute colitis including stress colitis. However, research to support their use is not conclusive and antibiotics may have harmful lasting effects on the gut microbiome. 

For dogs that have known stress colitis caused by certain situations, a prescription drug called Librax (chlordiazepoxide / clidinium) may be beneficial. This drug was developed to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in humans. Pet parents can start this medication just before stressful situations or at the first sign of intestinal upset. Use of this medication has not been studied in dogs so it should only be used for short periods of time and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. 

General Cost To Treat Colitis In Dogs

The cost to treat a short bout of colitis in your dog will vary depending on where you live, the size of your dog, and the type of veterinary clinic you go to. However, you can expect the following approximate costs: 

  • Physical examination: $45-$80
  • Fecal test (float/smear): $45-$65
  • Giardia test: $50-$60
  • Prescription diet (for up to a few weeks): $35-$85
  • Probiotics: $15-$30
  • Anti-diarrheal medication(s): $15-$25
  • Subcutaneous fluids: $45-$70

How To Prevent Stress Colitis In Dogs

Sick dog lying on floor

If your dog has a history of developing colitis under stressful circumstances, your veterinarian may recommend the following to prevent stress colitis: 

  • Feeding a prescription diet.
  • Giving a daily probiotic. 
  • Using a calming pheromone spray or diffuser.
  • Giving a calming supplement
  • Giving a prescription anxiety medication. 
  • Working with a veterinary behaviorist to manage anxiety.

Depending on the frequency and severity of your dog’s colitis and behavioral symptoms, the above may be recommended for only a short time—before and during stressful events—or as something that becomes part of your dog’s normal routine.   

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