An impaired intestinal epithelial barrier is thought to be a major factor in the pathogenesis of human inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD is frequently investigated by inducing a damaged barrier in murine models of colitis. This can be done by feeding mice with dextran sulfate sodium (DSS) polymers in their drinking water. Refinement measures should focus on alleviating unnecessary suffering during this probably painful condition. Appropriate parameters are needed to decide when to terminate the experiments. Our aim was to investigate whether a change in burrowing behaviour is a sensitive measure of animal welfare in murine models of colitis. Acute colitis was induced in C57BL/6 mice with 2.0% DSS over nine days. The burrowing test is based on the species-typical behaviour of mice to spontaneously displace items from tubes within their home cage. As a burrowing apparatus, a water bottle (250 mL, 150 mm length, 55 mm diameter) filled with 138-142 g of pellets of the animal's diet was used. The presence of intestinal inflammation as a result of acute DSS-induced colitis was confirmed by a decrease in body weight, colon length and an increase of murine endoscopic index of colitis severity, histological score and spleen weight in the group receiving DSS as compared with the control group. An onset of intestinal inflammation correlated with a significant decrease in burrowing behaviour (P < 0.05). Altered adrenal gland histology indicated stress as a result of acute colitis. Our findings provide evidence that changes of spontaneous burrowing behaviour correlate with the onset of inflammation in acute DSS-induced colitis.