Nutrition for Dogs with Colitis

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP

My dog has been diagnosed with colitis and my veterinarian told me she needs to eat special food. What does colitis mean?

Colitis simply refers to inflammation of the colon (also known as the large bowel or large intestine). It is a fairly common problem in dogs. Diarrhea is the most common sign of colitis.

Colitis causes diarrhea characterized by straining (with little stool volume produced), urgency, and the presence of mucus and/or blood on (not in) the stool. Some dogs also seem to feel unwell with lethargy and a lack of appetite, but most dogs with colitis appear bright and alert. Colitis can be acute or chronic, caused by a single gastrointestinal insult, or ongoing issues requiring systemic or nutritional management. Something as simple as some diet changes can cause a bout of colitis. For more information on this condition please see the handout "Colitis in Dogs".

What role does diet and nutrition play in managing colitis?

Dealing with colitis may boil down to working with your veterinarian to find a nutrient profile that allows your dog's gastrointestinal (GI) system to function as normally as possible.

Always be sure to provide plenty of fresh water. Water is the single most important nutrient, and good hydration lays the foundation for good colon health.

Choose a nutrient profile which contains a high quality, high digestibility protein. The protein for an adult dog should be between 15% and 30% on a dry matter (DM) basis. For a growing puppy, the protein content should be 22% to 32% DM. Ideally, the protein digestibility should be ≥ 87%. It may be appropriate to provide a single source, novel protein (one to which the dog has not previously been exposed) like venison, kangaroo, alligator, or duck.

It may be best to provide the protein in a form called hydrosylate. An hydrosylated (or hydrolyzed) protein is one that has been broken down into its composite amino acids. Think of it as a first step in protein digestion. For dogs with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)-related colitis, a modified protein may be an important part of symptom management. The process of breaking down the protein makes it unrecognizable to the body as that particular protein; the body can still use it for nutrition but does not react to it adversely.

Dietary fat is often important in managing chronic colitis. Depending on the dog's calorie needs, a nutrient profile with a low to moderate fat content (10 - 15% DM) may help control diarrhea from colitis. That said, many dogs with chronic colitis do just fine with a higher fat DM than 15%.

In addition to providing a high digestibility protein to dogs with colitis, the carbohydrate component should also have high digestibility; ideally ≥ 90%. Nutrients from highly digestible foods are better absorbed from the small intestine, leaving less residue for bacterial fermentation in the colon, thus reducing the risk for colitis-related diarrhea.

Finally, dietary fiber may play a role to benefit the large bowel of dogs with chronic colitis. Benefits of fiber include:

  • Normalizing the time it takes everything to move through the colon
  • Protecting the gut against toxins
  • Holding excess water in the stool and reducing the risk for diarrhea
  • Supporting growth of normal colon bacteria
  • Supporting healthy colon cells

Fiber can be soluble (e.g., fruit pectin), insoluble (e.g., peanut hulls); or mixed (e.g., beet pulp, bran). Low fiber ≤ 5% DM crude fiber), moderate fiber (10 - 15% DM crude fiber), and high fiber (≥ 15% DM crude fiber) have all been used successfully to manage canine colitis.

Some diets that your veterinarian may suggest include Rayne Clinical Nutrition™ Low Fat Kangaroo-MAINT™, Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed®, Royal Canin® Canine Selected Protein KO or Royal Canin® Canine Gastrointestinal Fiber Response™, or Hill's® Prescription Diet® i/d® Canine or Hill's® Prescription Diet® w/d™.

Managing canine acute or chronic colitis means providing a nutrient balance that meets the dog's needs, while also providing for normal GI movement and normal colonic water absorption in order to produce normal stool texture. Because there are many factors to consider, it is best to work with your veterinarian to assess your dog's clinical and nutritional history, create a nutritional plan, and then evaluate the success of the plan. It may take more than one attempt to find the right nutrient profile for the individual dog. Be patient! Persistence will pay off.

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