My 11-year-old German Shepherd-Canadian Wolf Dog, Balto, has been struggling with bouts of runny tummy, and there have been traces of blood in his stool. He is prone to eating sticks and palm nuts from the garden, which also can’t be helping matters. He has been diagnosed as suffering from Colitis and I need to understand a bit more about the condition, the cause and the treatment. He is currently on metronidazole (an antibiotic); can he stay on this indefinitely if need be? Is there any way that I can adapt his diet to help him overcome it?
Julie Legge – Little Falls
Dr Kathryn Knipe (BVSc) answers…
Colitis means “inflammation of the colon”; it’s characterised by diarrhoea, tenesmus (straining to defecate), mucus and/or fresh (red) blood in the stool, and frequent passing of small amounts of stool. Colitis can be either acute or chronic, with the acute form lasting less than 72 hours, while chronic colitis persists for more than three weeks. Either form is very uncomfortable for your pet.
Acute colitis is most commonly associated with dietary indiscretion (such as eating spoiled food), certain intestinal parasitic infections, as well as the ingestion of abrasive substances like cat litter or hair in longhaired cats. So, his stick-eating habit may well be involved. Bacterial toxins may also play a role, hence your vet prescribing metronidazole.
Chronic colitis can be caused by the above factors, as well as food intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and cancer of the large intestine.
If any pet (cats can get it too) is showing symptoms of colitis, your vet will need to give them a thorough examination. This will include a rectal examination as well as tests to exclude intestinal parasites (such as worms) as a cause. In cases of chronic colitis your veterinarian may want to perform a colonoscopy to exclude rectal polyps and other physical abnormalities as the cause of the symptoms, as well as to take biopsy samples of the intestinal wall to check for IBD or cancer of the large intestinal wall. If any such disorders are diagnosed they have their own specific treatment, which your veterinarian will prescribe.
In most cases, the treatment of colitis will involve treatment for intestinal parasites and feeding a bland diet, usually rice-based. Sometimes vets may prescribe something for the discomfort, or a probiotic supplement. In cases with food intolerance your vet will recommend the use of a hypoallergenic diet, be it special pellets or a raw or cooked diet. If your pet is prone to colitis, avoid feeding them table scraps and leftovers, as this may trigger a bout. Try to keep their stress levels low as, in some pets, this can make things worse – taking them for regular walks and investigating natural calming products could help. You will also need to be alert to Balto picking up and eating sticks or similar as this could make matters worse.
Acute colitis responds well to treatment and will usually resolve within a few days. With chronic colitis the challenge is to find the underlying cause and address it. This is often a case of trial and error, and it helps to keep a diary in which you note down Balto’s symptoms, along with what he ate, and any other events occurring around that time.
Since the most common cause tends to be food allergy, your vet may suggest a specialised vet food to try out. It is not recommended that your dog stay on antibiotics long-term – if it hasn’t done the trick by now, then it’s likely that either there isn’t a bacterial cause or, if there is, this specific antibiotic isn’t suitable. Check with your vet before discontinuing any medications and make sure your dog finishes the whole course of metronidazole.
Pets with chronic colitis often need lifelong management, most often with specific diets. In cases of IBD your veterinarian may put your pet onto chronic medication to manage the condition.