Stress colitis in dogs can happen as a reaction to anxiety and stressors. Any stressful situation for your dog can lead to stress colitis.
What is Colitis?
Your dog’s colon (aka the large intestine or large bowel) helps absorb nutrients and maintain the body’s fluid and electrolyte balance. It also stores feces temporarily and is a space where normal intestinal bacteria live.
Colitis means there is inflammation in the colon. Because of the inflammation, the end of the stool can contain bright red blood. Dogs with colitis will need to poop often and will usually have a sense of urgency. Stools may be small and vary from semi-formed to liquid. With chronic colitis, mucus or fat may be present.
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Signs of Colitis Include
- Straining to poop
- Increased frequency and urgency to poop
- Mucus or fresh (bright red) blood in the stool
- Stool consistency ranging from soft to diarrhea
What Causes Stress Colitis?
Stress is one of the leading causes of colitis in dogs (1). Colitis caused by stress is “stress colitis.” It can happen as a reaction to any event that causes anxiety in your dog … like moving, rehoming, boarding, competition, a new family member …
How is Stress Colitis Diagnosed?
There is no definitive test for stress colitis. Often, diagnosis is made from the owner’s descriptions of the condition and possible triggers.
Your vet can perform further diagnostic tests if the colitis is not stress-induced or is not responding to the remedies below. A microscopic examination of the animal’s stool can help rule out parasites. X-Rays and ultrasounds can rule out foreign bodies or obstructions. Colonoscopies and colon biopsies can rule out irritable bowel syndrome, polyps or tumors.
Stress-Induced Colitis in Dogs
The World Health Organization dubbed stress the “health epidemic of the 21st Century”. And elevated stress levels aren’t just plaguing human. Our canine companions are equally stressed out by modern-day life (2).
Think about what we expect of the wolf descendants we share our lives with. Most of them lie around waiting for us at home all day. They get a quick walk around the block twice a day if they’re lucky. They’re not mentally or physically stimulated the way they used to be … especially working breeds who are just family pets instead of doing the job they’re bred for.
As with humans, stress often shows up as digestive issues in dogs … like gut microbiome imbalances, inflammation and infection. The effect of stress on gut bacteria and the immune system is well-documented.
Because about 90% of your dog’s immune system is in his gut, the immune system gets run down at times of stress. A weakened immune system plus an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut perfectly sets the stage for stress colitis.
How Long Does Stress Colitis Last?
Stress colitis is usually acute … but can become chronic, if your dog experiences chronic anxiety or stress in his life. Acute colitis is short-lived and typically easier to treat. Chronic colitis will frequently recur and can be more difficult to treat. Many dogs with acute colitis will return to normal within 3 to 5 days. But the amount of time a bout of stress colitis lasts will vary from dog to dog.
On the positive side, most cases of stress colitis are “self-limiting,” which means they’ll resolve on their own. However, these incidents can be uncomfortable for your dog. There are several things you can do to ease their discomfort naturally.
Treating Stress Colitis in Dogs
Conventional veterinary treatment uses a very medicine-heavy approach to treating colitis. Antibiotics, dewormers, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs can all make gut imbalances even worse.
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To resolve stress colitis, you’ill first need to determine what’s causing your dog’s stress. Then you must either remove it or help your dog manage better with positive training techniques and perhaps calming supplements. (More on that later.)
First, let’s review some things you can do to help your pet recover from stress induced colitis.
Fast Your Dog
Whenever your dog has diarrhea, fasting him should be your first step. Avoid giving any food for 12-24 hours. Keep fresh water available. This allows his digestive system time to reset and will help slow the gastrocolic reflex.
The gastrocolic reflex means the colonic contractions that happen after a meal, helping to move the food toward the rectum (3).
Caution: Never fast young puppies. Call your vet if your puppy develops diarrhea.
Again, around 90% of your dog’s immune system is in his gut. Ensuring healthy bacteria are present is key to managing any disease in your dog.
Supplementing your dog with pre- and probiotics during times of stress may also help prevent diarrhea. One study found that dogs given probiotics when entering a shelter were significantly less likely to get diarrhea (4).
RELATED: The ultimate guide to probiotics for dogs …
Feeding fiber-rich foods, especially those that contain prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), can help balance microflora in the colon, and manage colonic disease (1).
Bacteria in the colon ferment the prebiotics and use them as an energy source. Prebiotics like FOS promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and limit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria (5).
Food sensitivities can be a cause of stress on your dog’s digestive system. Consider switching your dog to a species-appropriate, raw food diet. You may need to feed a protein he hasn’t eaten before, or vary his proteins regularly.
What Triggers Colitis In Dogs
Here are some common situations that can be stressful for your dog and lead to a bout of stress colitis. This list is by no means extensive, and all dogs can get anxious about different things.
- Boarding or daycare
- Fireworks or thunderstorms
- Being left alone
- Vet or groomer visits
- Moving to a new home
- Adding another child or pet to the family
Ways to Manage Your Dog’s Stress
It’s not always possible to avoid stressful situations in your dog’s life. Anxious dogs are more likely to suffer from stress colitis. Here are some ways you can help manage your dog’s stress naturally:
In humans, exercising helps reduce stress levels, boost endorphins, and relieve anxiety and depression. You’ve likely seen the impact a long, relaxing walk has on your dog.
Prioritizing exercise should be a key stress-management technique for your dog.
Enrichment can take many forms, including:
- Allowing your dog to sniff and explore his surroundings on a walk
- Chewing on a recreational raw bone
- Working on a food puzzle or snuffle mat
Keeping your dog mentally and physically stimulated is a great way to reduce his stress levels.
Include training as part of your management plan. Try making positive associations between your pup and the stressor.
For example, if your dog is afraid of traveling in the car, you can start to help him associate your vehicle with positive things. Use treats, praise or toys/play or a trip to the park … whatever your dog enjoys most.
There are many natural, safe calming options for your pup. It can take a bit of trial and error to find the right management plan for your dog’s individual needs. So be patient and don’t give up. Here are a few options you may want to look into. Click on the link below for more information on using these remedies.
- CBD oil
- Calming herbs like chamomile, valerian or St John’s Wort
- Bach flower remedies
- Homeopathic remedies
RELATED: How to calm dog anxiety naturally …
Some form of stress is a reality for most modern-day dogs. Intense or ongoing stress can lead to digestive conditions like stress colitis. Coming up with a unique management plan for your dog and working to eliminate the stressors will be a key factor in their health & happiness.
- Defarges, A. Colitis in small animals – digestive system. Merck Veterinary Manual.
- Fink , G. Stress: The health epidemic of the 21st Century: Scitech Connect. Elsevier SciTechConnect.
- Malone, Jordan. Physiology, Gastrocolic Reflex. National Library of Medicine. 8 May 2022.
- Rose, L. et al. Efficacy of a Probiotic‐Prebiotic Supplement on Incidence of Diarrhea in a Dog Shelter: A Randomized, Double‐Blind, Placebo‐Controlled Trial. Journal of Internal Veterinary Medicine. 2017 Mar-Apr; 31(2): 377–382.