Celiac Disease in Dogs

Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) can cause a host of health problems in dogs, including allergies, leaky gut syndrome, even epilepsy. Find out more about this disease and how to manage the dog's diet to prevent and control the disease.

Celiac disease is rather prevalent in people in North America, but did you know that celiac disease can occur in dogs as well? Irish setters have been found to be genetically susceptible to celiac disease, and other dog breeds can be gluten-intolerant too. But the good news is, sometimes a change in the dog's diet can make a huge difference in their health.

This page looks at these topics:

What Are Glutens?

Glutens are proteins that are found in some grains (rye, barley, wheat). They are sticky by nature and can act like glue in the intestine, clogging the villi (the finger-like projections lining the wall of the small intestine).

What is Celiac Disease?

Irish Setter Short explanation: Celiac disease (aka gluten intolerance) is an autoimmune disorder in which the glutens in foods cause damage to the villi in the small intestine, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients.

A longer explanation: The duodenum (small intestine) of dogs (and humans too) is lined with very tiny, finger-like projections called villi, which play an important role in nutrient absorption. In dogs with gluten intolerance, the glutens in the food cause the body to produce IgE antibodies, causing the dog to show symptoms similar to those of an allergy (e.g. itching, diarrhea). Over time, the glutens and IgE antibodies can damage the villi, preventing them from functioning properly and adequately. This translates into mal-absorption as vital nutrients (including calcium, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, iodine, vitamins B and C, and more) are not properly absorbed by the villi to be released into the bloodstream. As a result, celiac disease often causes a host of health problems to the dog.


How Do I Know If My Dog Has Celiac Disease?

If your dog suffers from joint pain from unknown cause, year-round allergies, idiopathic epilepsy, recurrent ear infections, chronic diarrhea, or other chronic health problems, and if no treatment (conventional and/or alternative) seems to be able to improve his condition, you may want to discuss the possibility of celiac disease with your vet and ask him to do some blood tests and possibly an intestinal biopsy to find out for certain.

Possible Health Problems Caused by Celiac Disease in Dogs

As you can imagine, mal-absorption can wreak havoc to a dog's body, and celiac disease can, in serious cases, affect major organs such as the heart, liver, nervous system, and so on. Here are a few of the more common ailments that can be the result of celiac disease in dogs:

  • Leaky gut syndrome: As mentioned above, when the villi are damaged by glutens, they no longer can adequately absorb nutrients. To compensate for this inadequacy, the cells in the intestine release a hormone (called zonulin), which helps to open up the natural barriers of the gut in order to facilitate absorption of nutrients.

    This sounds like a good compensation; however, with the barriers wide-open, harmful substances (e.g. bacteria, chemicals, partially digested food proteins) can also be released into the bloodstream together with the nutrients. The immune system, recognizing these harmful substances as being "invaders", reacts immediately in an attempt to get rid of these substances. This results in the dog having gas, bloating, and diarrhea.

    Over time, leaky gut syndrome can cause a host of other problems, including bacterial overgrowth, skin allergies, gum disease, irritable bowel disease, autoimmune disorders, and more.

  • Idiopathic Epilepsy: If a dog has seizures but no underlying cause (e.g. a brain tumor) can be found, the dog is usually diagnosed as having idiopathic epilepsy.

    However, one possible explanation of idiopathic epilepsy may be connected to celiac disease in dogs. The reason? It is known that B complex and magnesium deficiencies are linked to epilepsy. If a dog cannot absorb sufficient amounts of these 2 nutrients, he may suffer from seizure disorders.

    According to Dr. J. Symes, a veterinarian who has spent a great deal of time studying and researching the relationship between glutens and canine illnesses, many dog parents with idiopathic epileptic dogs can actually see improvement in their dogs' conditions within months after having put their dogs on a gluten-free diet.

  • Joint Problems and Pains: Joint problems, such as hip dysplasia and OCD, may also be triggered or worsened by glutens in dogs with celiac disease.

    Many joint problems are the result of weak collagen, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is one of the key components of collagen. Now, in dogs, vitamin C can be produced by the liver. However, the liver depends on nutrients coming from the small intestine to function properly. It is obvious then if the small intestine is not healthy and cannot absorb enough nutrients, the liver will suffer. And when the liver is not functioning properly, the joints may eventually be affected.

Gluten-Free Diet for Dogs with Celiac Disease

According to Dr. Symes, dogs with celiac disease and suffering from other ailments (e.g. epilepsy) can profoundly be helped by a gluten-free diet.

Here are his guidelines:

  1. First and foremost, avoid all foods, including dog treats, that contain glutens (wheat, barley, and rye). If your dog has celiac disease and shows signs of allergies, oats can be chosen as a safe ingredient. However, oats contain high levels of glutamate and can contribute to pain and epilepsy in some pets.
  2. Besides glutens, the following foods are also known to be able to cause problems (e.g. allergic reactions) to sensitive dogs. Avoid them also:
    • Dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.);
    • Soy products (tofu, soy milk, soy beans);
    • Corn, including corn gluten meal (Dr. Symes indicates that this is particularly important if your dog has epilepsy, asthma, joint pains, or GI problems);
    • Artificial preservatives and colors.
  3. If allergies persist after removing the grains listed above, avoid rice.
  4. If allergy persists even after eliminating the above ingredients, avoid common animal proteins that may cause allergies, in particular, beef and fish.