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Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in Cats

Inflammatory bowel disease, also called IBD, is the most common cause of continued or chronic vomiting and diarrhea in cats (and dogs), meaning vomiting and/or diarrhea occurring at least twice a week for months or years. Usually seen in middle-aged cats and dogs, IBD rarely occurs in dogs and cats less than 2 years of age. Purebred cats may be at increased risk for developing IBD. Keep reading to learn more about inflammatory bowel disease, including causes, symptoms, and treatment options.

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What is IBD exactly? It is a disease of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, usually affecting the upper GI tract in cats. An increased number of inflammatory cells in the GI tract causes the stomach and/or intestinal walls to thicken, leading to abnormal movement, digestion, and absorption of food and liquids.

IBD ranges from potentially serious and life-threatening illness to milder forms causing on and off symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea.

How do cats get inflammatory bowel disease?

The cause of IBD is still unknown but some contributing factors include:

  • Bacterial infections of the GI tract
  • Intestinal worms or parasites
  • Food allergies
  • Individual genetic susceptibility
  • Drug reactions
  • Immune system dysfunction

IBD has been linked with inflammatory liver and pancreatic diseases in cats. Rarely, severe, chronic IBD can lead to lymphoma which is a type of GI tract cancer.

Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats

Signs of IBD often look like several other diseases and can vary from cat to cat. Signs seen most often include:

  • Long-standing or chronic intermittent vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Slow weight loss
  • Change in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • Decreased activity or less energy for play
  • Lack of grooming
  • Noticeable gas
  • Painful stomach
  • Difficulty passing stool, or passing dark, bloody, or mucus-covered stool

How is IBD diagnosed in cats?

Diagnosis of IBD is based on the signs and symptoms listed above, a thorough history where your vet will ask how long and how often you’ve noticed the signs in your cat as well as a thorough physical exam.

Depending on your cat’s history, symptoms, and physical exam findings, your vet will select stool tests (often a series), blood work including a thyroid profile and testing for FeLV and FIV, and urinalysis. A food trial can help as well as other specialized tests looking at digestive enzymes, x-rays, and ultrasound. These tests help determine if your cat has other diseases which look similar to IBD as well as how the IBD is affecting other organs and body systems.

Confirming IBD must be done through a biopsy of the GI tract. This means that a tiny piece of tissue from the intestines is taken while your cat is under general anesthesia. These samples are sent to a diagnostic lab to be analyzed by a specialized veterinarian known as a veterinary pathologist. Together, you and your vet will determine if and when a biopsy is necessary.

How to Treat IBD in Cats

The goal of treating a cat with IBD or suspected IBD is to decrease the frequency of vomiting and/or diarrhea and to feed an appropriate nutritious diet that is well tolerated and appetizing, and also improves and provides a good quality of life.

Note that with any food trial it is vital that the diet prescribed for your cat be the only food source offered, usually over 6-8 weeks. Avoid all treats as even one nibble can trigger an allergic reaction and result in having to begin the trial over again.

When IBD is suspected but not confirmed, different treatments including prescription diet and medications may be tried to control the symptoms. Treatments for cats with suspected or confirmed IBD can include the following:

  • Deworming medications
  • Probiotics
  • Antibiotics
  • Prescription diets: easy to digest and hypoallergenic
  • Immunosuppressive medications such as cortisone
  • Anti-inflammatory medications

Cats with severe signs of IBD such as dehydration will usually need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous (IV) fluid support and other injectable medications to stabilize them.

Note that IBD is a chronic or ongoing disease and cats diagnosed or tentatively diagnosed with IBD need continued follow-up appointments as well as blood tests or other tests to monitor body organs, response to therapy and medications, and make adjustments as needed.

When to Contact a Vet

If your cat has any of the signs or symptoms listed in this article or if you have noticed any changes in behavior such as hiding, it’s time to contact a vet.

If your cat is severely sick you need to contact your nearest pet emergency hospital for immediate care.

Read more:

Diarrhea in Cats 101

Lymphoma in Cats

Why is my cat not eating? 3 Common Causes of Anorexia in Cats

Do you have more questions about inflammatory bowel disease in cats?

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