See those beautiful lilacand plum-colored hills, dotted with darker stones on what looks like pathways? And the slopes that dive into valleys lined with translucent pebbles? But wait. These aren’t lavender-f lowered furrows. They’re a close-up view of the intestines in cross-section. The purple polka dots are inflammatory cells, out of place and infiltrating the tissues. This is inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, as seen under a microscope.
These histological views, thin slices of stained tissue, are collected via endoscopic or surgical biopsy. They might be small but they reveal a lot, particularly about the kinds of inflammatory cells that are cramming the villi and crypts—the steep hills and valleys— of the GI tract. Crowds of lymphocytes, plasma cells, eosinophils, macrophages and/or neutrophils cause the bowel to thicken, and hinder its motility. They also block the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients, properly manufacture mucus to line the tract and originate hormonal signals.
What causes the GI tract to host the wrong type of cells? It’s not completely clear. Broadly speaking, the immune system overreacts, perhaps to diet, parasites or bacteria. The visiting immune cells then send signals, called cytokines, which create more inf lammation. The end result is an altered intestinal architecture and a host of symptoms: weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, mucus and/or blood in the stool. The particular symptoms depend on where the inflammation lives, which can be anywhere from the stomach to the rectum.
Diagnosis begins with blood work, which may show protein loss, anemia, dehydration, altered B12/cobalamin and folate levels, elevated liver enzymes, and sometimes pancreatitis. For a definitive identification, a GI biopsy is the gold standard, but when possible surgical risk or cost is a factor, an abdominal ultrasound can provide a presumptive diagnosis; thickened bowel loops usually indicate IBD. (In rare cases, they may also indicate a cancer such as lymphoma; it can be difficult to suss out the subtleties between it and IBD on ultrasound. It’s important to be sure that lymphoma’s not in play because starting prednisone—a common steroid used to treat IBD—without ruling out lymphoma can make an accurate diagnosis difficult later and can create future chemotherapy resistance.)
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Medical Treatment Options
Assuming that IBD is the most likely cause of your dog’s GI problems, there are definitely things you can do to help your friend feel better. For mild cases, diet change is often the first step. An easily digestible, low-residue diet or a novel-protein food, such as duck, rabbit, fish or venison, is a good place to begin. Another option is to feed a hydrolyzed-protein diet, in which the proteins are already broken down and can thus slide unrecognized past the immune system. Lower-fat diets may help as well, as fat can be hard to digest.
Dogs who do not respond completely to diet change may be placed on steroids, antibiotics and, sometimes, stronger immunosuppressive drugs like cyclosporine or azathioprine. Each medication comes with its own list of possible side effects, so the goal is to try to taper the medication to the lowest effective dose. To cover all bases of possible inflammatory triggers, many veterinarians will also deworm dogs with suspected IBD.
A dog who isn’t tolerating medications will often urinate in the house, and changes will be seen in his liver-related bloodwork. In those cases, we still have tools to use. Daily pre- and probiotics, such as Herbsmith Microflora, can help realign proper bacterial balance in the gut, and B12 shots given under the skin can help replace lost cobalamin.
Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) is another excellent tool. TCVM includes acupuncture, Chinese herbs, food therapy and tui na (a form of therapeutic massage). Rather than treating a dog for a list of symptoms, TCVM creates a picture of his health based on patterns. From indicators such as the dog’s tongue color and coating, pulse strength and character, time of day of the signs, personality, and preferences for cold or warm places, a TCVM vet develops an individualized treatment plan.
These specifics matter. Herbal formulas for chronic early-morning diarrhea are different than those used to treat acute bloody diarrhea. Formulas for acute diarrhea may only be used for a week, but herbs for chronic GI issues are usually given for one to three months. It’s important to use highquality, domestically manufactured formulas from suppliers like Jing Tang Herbal to guarantee low toxicity and uniformity. Herbs are medicine, with possible side effects and interactions, so it’s best to have a TCVM vet prescribe the correct formula for your dog.
Combining acupuncture and Chinese herbs is another powerful way to assist in the resolution of both acute and chronic GI issues. Acupuncture points are located in areas where nerve endings, blood vessels, mast cells and lymphatics are concentrated, and activating those points helps to strengthen the immune system, lower inflammation, increase circulation and reduce pain. Studies have documented that point stimulation also releases neurotransmitters such as beta-endorphin and serotonin.
A TCVM vet will choose a series of points to relieve pain, vomiting and poor appetite, as well as to address heat in GI tract (blood) or a yang deficiency (warm-seeking). Thin, single-use, sterile needles are placed at specific sites, and are left in place from one to 30 minutes. The number of needles used depends on the dog’s age, personality and level of disease. Most dogs relax, yawn and even fall asleep after about 10 minutes. As with any chronic disease, it takes time to steer recovery in the right direction. For acupuncture, a good place to start is three to five treatments spaced at 10- to 14-day intervals.
When all goes well, combining Western and Eastern medical treatments results in weight gain, eagerness to eat and a reduction in GI pain. Not to mention the return of those wonderful, broad doggie smiles and whole-body tail wags.