Posted by Camille Arneberg on

IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) in Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

Table of Contents

Your dog’s digestive system is a complex series of moving parts that require everything to be working in harmony. For the most part, the process of digestion is relatively simple, but irritable bowel syndrome in dogs tends to complicate the whole ordeal. If your dog has IBS, you are probably already familiar with some of the more unpleasant symptoms, but perhaps you still struggle with understanding why these symptoms keep recurring. This article will help to explain how your dog’s digestive system is affected by IBS and will reveal everything you need to know from diagnosis to treatment. 

A quick overview of a dog’s digestive system:

To understand IBS, we must first have a rudimentary understanding of how your dog’s digestive system works.

The canine digestive system can be subdivided into four main categories: 

  • The mouth and esophagus
  • The stomach 
  • The intestines
  • The colon

Each of these sections plays a vital role in helping your dog to consume and properly digest his food, and it all begins when your dog gets hungry. Your dog uses his mouth to consume and chew food, and then as he swallows, the food travels down the esophagus, which connects the mouth to the stomach. 

A dog has a wide esophageal passage, and as a result, he does not need to chew his food the same way humans do. A canine esophagus is coated with saliva. In dogs, saliva does not play any part in breaking down food. It merely acts as a lubricant to help food travel from the mouth to the stomach. 

Once food passes through the esophageal passage, it lands in the stomach. It takes anywhere between 4 and 12 hours for a dog’s stomach to break down food from bite-size chunks into a digestible paste. Stomach acid is used by the body to help break down food within the lining of the stomach.

 In dogs, the stomach is more of a storage facility, holding the food until there is enough of a caloric deficit to warrant new digestion. Once the body is ready for new food to be absorbed based on the dog’s caloric needs, it is pushed into the small intestine.

The small intestine is where the bulk of digestion takes place, and it is divided into three subsections. The first section of the small intestine is the duodenum. The duodenum is directly connected to the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. This is where food is prepared for intake as it is mixed with digestive enzymes and bile to make the food easily digestible.

The jejunum is where nutrient absorption takes place, and this section of the small intestine is the key to the digestive process. The second and longest section of the small intestine is responsible for turning your dog’s food into energy. A large number of hanging extremities called villi, stick to the moving food particles and filter usable food from waste. 

As the villi do their job, the waste is passed on to the ileum, the shortest section of the small intestine characterized as the connective tissue between a dog’s small intestine and colon.

In dogs, there is no real distinction between the large intestine and the colon. The large intestine is made up of the ascending, and descending colon wherein moisture is removed from fecal matter to prevent the body from becoming dehydrated. After waste is passed from the ileum into the large intestine, it begins to form and take shape until it is ready to be expelled as waste from the anus. 

The difference between IBD and IBS:

If you do a quick Google search for IBS, you will be inundated with results for IBD. This may lead you to believe that IBS and IBD are the same thing. While the two are definitely related, Healthy Pets reminds us that IBS and IBD are two very different ailments.

It may be splitting hairs, but it is essential to distinguish that IBS is a syndrome, whereas IBD is a disease. These two ailments are often misused in place of one another, but in the case of irritable bowels, it is crucial to keep them separate. To shed some light on the subject, a syndrome is a collection of symptoms that occur as a group, whereas a disease is an impairment of regular bodily functions manifested in specific symptoms. In simpler terms, you can have a syndrome without having a disease, but you can’t have a disease without the syndrome. 

Irritable Bowel Disease is defined as an invasion of inflammatory particles into the lining of the intestinal wall, which prevents the absorption of nutrients. In cases of IBD, the small intestine becomes severely inflamed, resulting in a significant loss of functionality.

It is believed that IBD is caused primarily by bacterial and/or viral infection and is diagnosed by identifying higher levels of specific digestive proteins produced as a result of the body trying to overcompensate due to the lack of nutritional absorption. 

According to petMD, because IBD is the culmination of severe IBS, if left untreated it is possible for IBS to escalate into full-blown IBD.

What causes IBS?

If you recall from our earlier biology lesson, the small intestine is the star player in your dog’s GI tract. While the small intestine is the victim of IBS, it is not the culprit. Unlike IBD, which is brought on by outside infection, IBS is psychosomatic. This means that IBS is primarily a mental condition that can be brought on by any number of triggers. A few psychological triggers that have been linked to IBS include:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Change in routine
  • Change in environment
  • The loss of an owner

Not all cases of IBS are neurological in nature, though it does seem to be a contributing factor in most cases. In some situations IBS can be attributed to any one of the following:

  • Fiber deficiency
  • Dietary intolerance to grain
  • Allergic reaction to food 
  • Colonic tumors
  • Bowel Obstruction

IBS is widely thought to be the culmination of several different negative stimuli. Based on the findings from Pet Time’s pet health experts, there is typically a mental and a physical element that creates the underlying gastric disruption of IBS. While there is evidence to support the claim that IBS is psychological, there are many canine health experts who believe IBS is simply the beginning stages of IBD. If treated successfully, IBS can be pushed into remission and will likely only return if the proper management techniques are not used.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

Symptoms of IBS are typically classified as “chronic,” meaning they can persist off and on over a long period of time. While the intensity of symptoms depends on the severity of the syndrome in each specific case, most owners describe the episodes of their dog’s IBS as aggressive. Here are some of the most common symptoms for IBS in dogs:

  • Mucus in the stool
  • Small, frequent bowel movements
  • Accidents in the house/the inability to hold it
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating and gas
  • Abdominal sensitivity
  • Unwillingness to lie down due to abdominal pain
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Reluctance to eat 
  • Weight Loss

While all of the aforementioned symptoms are indicative of IBS, large spells of diarrhea and small frequent bowel movements containing mucus are the most common signs of IBS. 

IBS will likely cause your dog a great deal of discomfort, so helping him feel as comfortable as possible is crucial. It is especially important to practice patience as any added stress or anger from you could manifest itself as aggravated symptoms in your dog and will result in problems with his digestive tract. Symptoms will come and go but be prepared for intense symptomatic flare-ups that seemingly occur out of nowhere. 

How is IBS diagnosed?

IBS in dogs can only be diagnosed when all other digestive issues have been ruled out. As petMD points out, a specific ailment is hard for vets to identify as there are a large number of digestive diseases that mimic the symptoms of IBS

As with all dog digestive issues, a full physical, complete with blood work and urinalysis, will be required for your vet to come to any kind of conclusion regarding your dog’s condition. Additionally, there may be some expensive tests in your future, including a colonoscopy and x-rays to rule out things like tumors and intestinal infection. Here are some things your veterinarian will likely check for in the process of diagnosing IBS:

  • Dietary intolerance
  • Inflammatory Colitis
  • Pythiosis
  • Whipworms
  • Colonic tumors i.e., colonic neoplasia
  • Histoplasmosis
  • Giardiasis
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Fiber induced diarrhea
  • Cecal Inversion

Once your veterinarian has ruled out any life-threatening, or other potentially severe, prognosis IBS will most likely be the only remaining conclusion. After your vet has provided the diagnosis, the two of you will begin working on a treatment plan for your dog’s chronic diarrhea and pain.

Treatment of IBS in Dogs

Certain medications can be prescribed to your dog to help with gastrointestinal distress. Depending on how IBS manifests itself in your dog, your vet may specify either a stool softener or an anti-diarrhea drug to calm the bowels and improve your dog’s health

Diet will be a significant factor in the way you treat IBS in your dog. Because IBS can cause either constipation or diarrhea, it will be essential to increase your dog’s fiber intake. Many times additional fiber can have impressive positive effects with IBS symptoms. Increasing dietary fiber will ensure that your dog’s intestinal tract will not have to work as hard for nutrients. As a result, the inflammation in his bowels will likely not be as severe. 

Many vets also suggest supplementing better food choices with probiotics. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that work to eradicate harmful microbes within the gut. The benefits of probiotics for a dog’s digestive tract include stimulated cell growth and increases in the production of vital nutrients. There are human probiotics that can be given to dogs, but there is no shortage of dog probiotic supplements that have been developed for canine-specific purposes. 

If your Vet believes that your dog’s IBS is neurological, then they may prescribe some kind of low-grade tranquilizers to help keep your dog calm. Managing the nervous system is a large part of the IBS puzzle, and anti-anxiety medicine is likely to be helpful in the treatment of IBS in your dog.

What else can I do?

The most important thing to remember when dealing with canine IBS is that management is key. VCA Hospitals advise that you follow a disciplined plan to help you be better prepared for IBS flare-ups. Planning will allow you to seamlessly adapt to the uncomfortable situations that arise without warning in your pup’s GI tract.

There are many homeopathic remedies for soothing gastrointestinal distress in dogs. One such treatment is canned pumpkin. Canned pumpkin, because of its low glycemic index and high fiber content, is excellent for settling a dog’s stomach. Additionally, pumpkin is very basic, which means that it is an anti-inflammatory that helps to fight excess acidity that may be promoting intestinal swelling.

Believe it or not, belly rubs can be a great way to soothe the pains of IBS. So long as your dog does not have too much abdominal pain, a light belly rub can help to ease their discomfort that accompanies IBS. Additionally, these belly rubs promote increased levels of happiness in your dog, which in turn will reduce his cortisol and stress levels. This chemical reaction to physical affection has the potential to alleviate the neurological stressors that cause IBS.

A Positive Note

The worst part about IBS is the period where it is undiagnosed. All of the symptoms and tests that come before diagnosis may make you feel like it was all for nothing. You may be surprised to hear this, but compared to the alternatives, IBS is a positive diagnosis! IBS, while it is not fully understood, is very treatable. Remember, while IBS in dogs natural remedies are excellent additions to treatment plans, there is no substitute for professional medical prognosis. So long as you take the necessary steps to keep IBS well managed and under control, you and your dog should be able to lead a happy and healthy life together. 



Camille Arneberg and her dog
Camille is a co-founder of PetHonesty and VP of Pup Parent Education. After watching her own family dog suffer from joint issues for years she became passionate about improving dogs' quality of life. With the help of a team of veterinarians and dog nutritionists she now helps educate other dog owners about the small but powerful things they can do to positively impact their dogs' health and wellness! She lives in Austin, TX and loves cuddling puppies, being outside and reading.