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Gastric health issues, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), are a growing problem among pets. According to many veterinarians, poor diets are a major part of the problem. Cheap dog food is most often full of low-quality ingredients and so overly processed that it lacks the bioavailable nutrients necessary for your dog.
Most of the commercial dog food brands manufacture a limited-ingredient line for dogs with food allergies or digestive issues. While they may be somewhat helpful in reducing symptoms, they are still not highly nutritive foods that truly address the underlying issues. Based on our research of IBD and IBS in dogs, we want to walk you through some dog foods that are healthier options and why we believe they are better alternatives.
In this review:
- Best dog food for IBD & IBS
- Why not to trust the biggest brands when your dog has IBS
- Ingredients to look for when choosing food for dogs with IBD
- Is there a difference between IBD and IBS?
Best dog food for IBD & IBS
Premium option: Best fresh IBD diet for dogs
A Pup Above rises above the rest with real, whole-food ingredients cooked in the sous vide method. This method locks in vitamins, minerals, and juices in your dog’s food for maximum flavor and nutrition.
This gently cooked fresh dog food is a premium product and will be more expensive than kibble. But that’s because it’s made entirely from human-grade ingredients you and I could eat, and it avoids all of the common contributors to IBD, like GMOs and cheap fillers. You can learn more about it in our full A Pup Above dog food review.
What we like
- Great for allergies: It only includes non-GMO produce from U.S. farms, and four USDA-certified, human-grade meat options. It offers grain-free and grain-inclusive options, as well as egg-free recipes.
- Real ingredients: Ingredients like pineapple and sweet potato aid digestion, reduce inflammation, and add soluble fiber to help subside IBD symptoms.
- Added Superfoods: For a boost of nutrition, each recipe includes a variety of vitamins and minerals as well as superfoods, such as turmeric, thyme, and parsley for joint, immune, and digestive support.
- Absolutely NO: artificial ingredients, preservatives, corn, soy, wheat, added colors or flavors, fillers, or overly-processed foods.
What we’d change
- More expensive than kibble: Pet nutritionists create human-grade meals to be nutritionally balanced with human-grade meats and produce, and the price reflects these qualities. This is real food, not kibble.
- No customized plan: You pick the recipes based on the knowledge you have of your pets’ health conditions. Whereas some fresh food companies, such as NomNomNow, create meal plans tailored to the health needs of your pet (e.g. allergies, GI issues).
>> Read more: Nom Nom vs Farmer’s Dog: Which Fresh Dog Food Is Better?
Budget IBD dog food
- USDA-certified organic ingredients without artificial preservatives, flavors or colors, grains, soy, or corn.
- Chicken and sweet potato are complemented with a blend of superfoods, such as organic flaxseed and blueberries.
- Balanced and complete nutrition with added minerals and vitamins like Vitamin B12, which dogs with IBD often lack.
The big brands you typically see in stores offer limited-ingredient recipes that are cheap and supposedly great for sensitive stomachs. However, most of these foods are still full of low-quality ingredients. If you’re serious about improving your dog’s IBD, you’ll want to upgrade their food from these mass-market brands. Castor & Pollux is one good, affordable option.
What we like
- Castor & Pollux eliminates some of the troublesome ingredients found in common kibbles—like GMOs, chemical pesticides, and artificial ingredients—while still maintaining an affordable price.
- This recipe includes certified-organic chicken that is supplemented with nutritious ingredients rich in soluble fiber, like sweet potatoes, peas, and blueberries. This fiber content helps reduce irritable bowel syndrome.
What we’d change
Although organic ingredients are a good start, we’d like this product more if the second ingredient, organic chicken meal, was substituted with a more nutritious whole meat. Even though the chicken meal is organic, the specifics are not clear, such as the quality of the rendered meal. Some other kibbles, such as Orijen’s line or UnKibble (below), have completely removed meat meals.
This is no traditional kibble. UnKibble is a veterinarian-created kibble alternative made with whole ingredients that are gently dried to preserve the most nutrition. It’s like a kibble version of the type of fresh food we reviewed above.
You’ll find ingredients full of soluble fiber (important for IBD and IBS) like apples, sweet potatoes, and carrots. The limited ingredient list also makes it easier to find a suitable recipe for dogs with allergies. None of the recipes contain eggs and two are gluten-free. (Note: Spot and Tango also offers a fresh food option. You can learn more in our Spot and Tango dog food review.)
What we like
- All UnKibble recipes are made with 100% fresh, human-grade ingredients and contain no meat meals, artificial preservatives, fillers, or additives.
- All three recipes are GMO-free and hormone-free, and meet the AAFCO’s standards for a complete diet for both puppies and adults.
- UnKibble recipes are gently dried using their unique Fresh Dry™ process, which maximizes nutritional integrity in a way other kibbles can’t.
What we’d change
Just as with fresh food, this gently processed dog food costs more than a typical grocery-store kibble. That’s because UnKibble only contains real, human-grade ingredients instead of the typical fillers and slaughterhouse remnants used in some mass-market kibbles.
However, it’s still much cheaper than fresh food, and you can get a personalized quote for free.
>> Read more: Spot and Tango vs Farmer’s Dog
Best wet dog food for IBD
- 100% human-grade ingredients look, smell, and taste just like they're homemade.
- The simple, limited ingredient list is combined with minerals and vitamins, like B12, which is great for dogs with IBD.
- Chunks of real lamb and organic veggies are smothered in a flavorful lamb bone broth.
What we like
- Lamb can be a great alternative meat for dogs with sensitivities to certain proteins, such as beef or chicken.
- This is a limited-ingredient recipe with no grains to make eliminating aggravating ingredients easier.
- Ingredients with soluble fiber (carrots) and insoluble fiber (kale) round out the lamb for a 100% complete and balanced diet that aids regular digestion.
What we’d change
While Stella and Chewy’s food is made in a human food manufacturing facility, and the recipe is free of lentils, peas, and poultry, it does not clearly indicate that the stew is completely free of gluten. If your dog needs a gluten-free diet, this could be a problem.
Best freeze-dried raw option
Open Farm makes finding a suitable food for your dog’s digestive issues easy. They offer six different protein recipes, and all but one consist of a single animal protein. This is great for dogs who need to avoid certain meats. Also, all the meat comes from 100% Certified Humane farms.
Not only are the fruits and veggies non-GMO, but they are also organic, so there will be fewer irritants introduced to your dog’s gastrointestinal tract. There’s a good balance of highly digestible soluble and insoluble fibers, such as carrots, spinach, and blueberries. And in each recipe you’ll find superfoods like turmeric and other vitamins and minerals that help reduce inflammation.
What we like
- The freeze-dried dog food is high in protein and easy to serve on-the-go, unlike some raw diets that are messy and require refrigeration.
- It consists of 85% protein from raw, ethically sourced meat, organs, and bone. These are mixed with organic fruits and vegetables for added fiber and vitamins.
- The freeze-drying process removes the moisture from raw ingredients without destroying the nutritional quality or flavor.
- Open Farm is great for options. You can choose to subscribe (and save $) and the food will be regularly shipped to your door. You can also choose from various types of food, such as fresh food, rustic stews, kibble, bone broth, and treats. You can learn more about these options in our Open Farm review.
What we’d change
Due to the high quality of the ingredients, the price for Open Farm’s freeze-dried raw food will be significantly higher than the kibble prices to which you may be accustomed. For this reason, some pet parents use the freeze-dried raw food as a kibble topper.
Best small dog kibble for IBD
- Halo uses whole meat—never meat meals—and high-quality fish from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
- For increased digestibility, Halo uses non-GMO fruits and vegetables and no artificial ingredients or preservatives.
- For a boost of nutrition, the recipe contains added minerals and vitamins like B12, which dogs with IBD often need.
What we like
- Halo dog food is right up there with our Best IBD dog food on a budget. It makes it possible to eliminate GMOs, animal meals, and animal byproducts while sticking to a budget.
- With a small kibble size and balanced nutrition, this recipe is suitable for our smallest canine companions.
- This fish-based recipe is perfect for dogs allergic to poultry or livestock. The protein is complemented with grains, pea fiber, dried fruits, and veggies, such as sweet potatoes and carrots.
What we’d change
While all Halo food is free of meat meals and animal byproducts, many recipes, including this one, contain common allergens like soy, egg, and gluten. This doesn’t mean they’re allergens your dog is sensitive to, however. You’ll need to work with a vet to determine your dog’s allergens in order to know which to avoid.
Best vegan dog kibble for IBD
- No meat, eggs, or vegetable meals.
- Plant-based and marine-sourced protein from chickpeas, sea kelp, and micro-algae.
- Made in the USA with quality ingredients sourced from US farms and around the world.
What we like
- Although canines customarily consume meat-based diets, some vets have seen the most improvement in gastrointestinal issues when dogs are completely taken off of animal products.1
- This vegan formula is highly digestible, 100% complete and balanced, and contains only non-GMO produce, like oat groats and lentils.
- The inclusion of inulin, turmeric, and B12 aid in combating IBD symptoms.
What we’d change
- This formula is not gluten free, since it contains barley.
- We also noticed that the recipe lacks traditional whole vegetables and fruits.
Why not to trust the biggest brands when your dog has IBS
Synthesizing the information we have gathered from trusted sources and veterinarians like Dr. Pitcairn,1 it’s our opinion that traditional pet food is full of ingredients that not only lack quality nutrition, but also has the potential to be irritating to your pet’s body. And unfortunately, the most recognized brands tend to be the biggest culprits.
Take a look at the most popular dog foods and you’ll find cheap, low-quality proteins like meat meal and meat byproducts, as well as hard-to-digest GMOs like corn, cornmeal, and soybeans. And these aren’t just included—they’re the main ingredients. Diets low in quality ingredients are one piece of the complex puzzle when it comes to the cause of IBD and IBS in dogs.1
This ingredient list is taken from a well-known dog food brand, which you’ve possibly had in your dog’s bowl at one time or another. Real meat is the 9th ingredient, rather than the 1st, where it should be (ingredients are listed proportionally from most to least).
The ingredients used in meat meals and byproducts are often slaughterhouse leftovers, which are unfit for human consumption. They sometimes include diseased or euthanized animals, roadkill, or restaurant leftovers. How they are handled after slaughter, such as their refrigeration, is not well controlled.
Kibble manufacturers cook these ingredients at high temperatures to kill bacteria and evaporate the natural liquids. The remnants are then baked and processed until they turn into a concentrated protein powder known as a byproduct meal.
While some dogs tolerate these poor-quality ingredients, others show signs of irritation in the form of allergies, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
That’s why we recommend working with your vet to gradually upgrade your dog to a special diet if they suffer from IBS or IBD.
Ingredients to look for when choosing food for dogs with IBD
When your dog is faced with an IBD diagnosis, you may begin to think of all the ingredients you need to eliminate from or add to your dog’s diet. But it may be simpler than that. Dr. Pitcairn gives this piece of advice when dealing with canine gastrointestinal diseases. “My advice therefore is not so much that there has to be a specified diet as that the food be natural and of good quality.”
This advice isn’t to say that there aren’t specific foods that should be eliminated from your dog’s diet—especially if they have known allergies. Certain foods, usually proteins, can trigger an allergic reaction from the dog’s immune system. You should work closely with your pet’s vet to determine what foods you should eliminate.
>> Read more: Best Dog Food for Tear Stains
Ingredients that can cause IBD in dogs
Research doesn’t show what exactly causes IBD in pets or humans, but it isn’t a specific food that is the cause.
As one pet health expert put it, IBD is caused by “a complex abnormal interaction between the immune system, diet, bacterial populations in the intestines, and other environmental factors.”2 And some pets are predisposed to IBD because of genetic abnormalities in their immune system.
Although the following aren’t direct causes of IBD or IBS, they are contributors to GI problems, according to Dr. Pitcairn.
- Poor diet: Low-quality or overprocessed ingredients like meat meals, low fiber diets, and high amounts of fat.
- Genetically modified foods & herbicides: Recent studies have found that GM foods and herbicides can be irritating to the stomachs of animals. A few examples commonly found in pet foods are corn, canola oil, soy, and sugar beets.
- Parasitic or bacterial infection: These include Salmonella, E. coli, and Giardia.
- Imbalance of gut bacteria: Disruptions to the composition of microorganisms in the GI tract can lead to IBD.4 One vet concluded that high chlorine levels in drinking water can affect the good bacteria that is crucial for normal intestinal function.
- Genetic predisposition: Genetic abnormalities of the immune system passed on from parents.
- Antibiotics & other pharmaceuticals: Antibiotics damage the microorganisms that live in the digestive system. These medications are important when prescribed to combat certain illnesses, but over-vaccinating and over-medicating can bring about chronic inflammation.
- Stress: Although a less supported theory, stress has been associated with other inflammatory diseases in cats, so it could be true of dogs as well.
Common food triggers
When the immune system goes haywire, it often targets proteins in food.1 A recent list of common food allergens include:
Often, immune responses subside when switching from a diet of one protein to another—but sometimes these improvements are temporary. Although allergies to plant foods exist (especially ones that have been genetically altered), many dogs have found relief on plant-based diets.1
Ingredients that can help IBD in dogs
If the cause of IBD is a complex combination of factors, then the solution will likely be equally as complex. But, a good starting point is with Dr. Pitcairn’s advice—the food you feed your dog should be as natural as possible and of good quality.
This theory is supported by one study which states, “Nutrition has the potential to both affect the disease condition directly through provision of substances like macro- and micronutrients, as well as indirectly by changing the microbiome (gut microbes), while the microbiome in turn influences the response to nutrition.”4
Simplified, nutrients in food (or the lack of them) can affect the disease directly or indirectly.
Real, minimally processed food that is rich in vitamins and minerals will lay a solid foundation for digestive health and provide the best chance to overcome the ongoing dysfunction. Additionally, there are a few key foods and vitamins that may reduce troublesome IBD symptoms. Always talk to your vet before using supplements, homeopathic remedies, or changing to a canine IBD diet.
- Soluble fiber: Soluble fiber, which is gentler than insoluble fiber, helps decrease both diarrhea and constipation by promoting digestive regularity. Add fiber to your dog’s diet gradually, though. Examples of soluble fibers are apples, sweet potatoes, and oat bran.
- Slippery elm powder: Reduces inflammation, lubricates the membranes in the GI tract and allows waste to be eliminated more efficiently. It’s also rich in fiber.
- Roasted carob powder: Helps firm up stools when added to food.
- Probiotics: This good bacteria helps restore and balance gut health while improving digestion and the immune system and reducing inflammation and discomfort. In fact, results from several studies suggest that “multi-strain probiotic treatments facilitated clinical remission in dogs diagnosed with IBD.”4
- Pumpkin: Rich in fiber, pumpkin is a prebiotic that supports good gut bacteria. It helps improve constipation and diarrhea.
- L-glutamine: This amino acid helps maintain proper growth of intestinal cells and reduces inflammation and infection.
- Digestive enzymes: These proteins break down complex nutrients into their smaller parts so they are easier for the intestine to absorb.
- Inulin: Another soluble fiber that nourishes gut bacteria.
- Homeopathic remedies: Arsenicum album 6c, Podophyllum 6c, Phosphorus 30c, or Mercurius vivus, or Mercurius solubilis 6c. You’ll need the guidance of a homeopath or holistic veterinarian when using these remedies, but it’s worth looking into them as they can help treat diarrhea.
Is there a difference between IBD and IBS?
IBS and IBD are different health issues. IBS is an issue of gut motility and does not involve inflammation. IBD, on the other hand, is a broad term used to describe a group of diseases that involve an abnormal immune response causing irritation or inflammation of the digestive tract. But both issues can cause similar symptoms, such as chronic vomiting, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and a sensitive stomach. See our guide to IBD and IBS in dogs for more information.
- Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats
- Algae as nutritional and functional food sources: revisiting our understanding. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5387034/
- The Effects of Nutrition on the Gastrointestinal Microbiome of Cats and Dogs: Impact on Health and Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7329990/#B136