Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): It’s a challenging disorder for your feline companion, you, and your veterinarian. We know that an IBD diagnosis can be stressful and worrisome for any pet parent. This article will cover what a diagnosis of IBD means for your cat, possible causes of IBD, and available options to manage and treat the disease.
What is Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Inflammatory bowel disease is a common disorder in cats, particularly in older cats and those with certain genetic predispositions. Feline IBD is a condition in which inflammatory cells penetrate the wall of the intestine, causing the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to become inflamed.
An inflamed gut prevents the normal digestion of food, including nutrient absorption. Inflammation can occur in any portion of the GI tract, from the stomach to the large intestine. Left untreated, chronic inflammation can lead to more severe conditions, such as feline cancer.
Is IBD The Same as IBS In Cats?
Inflammatory bowel disease is sometimes confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a term reserved for gastrointestinal disorders in human patients. You may also hear the term stress colitis when discussing GI signs, which is used to describe acute disturbances of the colon caused by stress. The important distinction between these terms is that IBD can cause colitis which is literally “colon inflammation” and is documented by demonstrating excess inflammatory cells within the colon walls.
IBS, and confusingly stress ‘colitis,’ have very similar outward signs, but intestinal biopsies fail to show inflammation. In cat IBD, inflammatory cells infiltrate the intestinal wall, which can lead to inflammation of the colon (called colitis), the small intestine (enteritis), or the stomach (gastritis). Lastly, your veterinarian (DVM) may use the term chronic enteropathy, which is a more encompassing term for all issues related to the GI tract of pets.
What Are The Clinical Signs of IBD In Cats?
While symptoms of IBD depend on the location and severity of the inflammation, these are the most common:
- Vomiting & chronic vomiting
- Diarrhea & chronic diarrhea
- Blood in stool
- Weight loss
- Loss of or decreased appetite
- Mucous in stool
- Straining in the litterbox
Is IBD in Cats Painful?
IBD can cause pain in cats, such as abdominal cramping from diarrhea. However, your cat is more likely to experience discomfort from IBD rather than severe pain. In some cases of IBD, cats may also vomit hairballs from over-grooming or uncharacteristically protest when picked up if they have abdominal pain. Keep a look out for these behaviors and contact your veterinarian if you suspect your feline companion is in pain.
What Test(s) Will My Veterinarian Perform to Determine a Definitive Diagnosis?
- Blood Work
- Vitamin B testing
- Pancreatic Test(s) (eg. lipase test, trypsin-like immunoreactivity test)
- Fecal Exam
- Imaging (Ex. Radiograph, ultrasound, etc)
- Biopsy (via endoscope)
- Abdominal Exploratory Surgery (in rare cases)
- Parasite Tests
- Diet Trial
These tests allow your veterinarian to rule out inflammation caused by intestinal parasites, cancer, food sensitivities or allergies, ingestion of toxins, foreign body obstructions and/or disorders of the liver, pancreas, thyroid, or kidneys.
Cats are often treated for IBD without an official diagnosis (official diagnoses can only be made via biopsy). Your cat may get a “provisional diagnosis” of IBD, meaning that your veterinarian believes this is the most likely diagnosis given the symptoms.
Some cats could be given an IBD diagnosis when they in fact have a food intolerance, a thyroid disorder (like hyperthyroidism), or gastrointestinal lymphoma. Additionally, similar to people, some cats likely start out with IBD and later develop gastrointestinal lymphoma.
What Causes IBD in Cats?
Scientists and veterinarians are still figuring out the exact cause(s) of IBD, which is complicated by the fact that there are many contributors of gut inflammation.
Some cat foods may contain ingredients that your cat has an intolerance or an allergy to.
Gut Microbiome Changes
Changes to the gut microbiome, the ecosystem of all of the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that inhabit the intestinal tract, can also be a cause for inflammation. For example, antibiotic usage can kill important bacteria in the gut that perform anti-inflammatory functions.
Exposure to environmental factors, such as inhalant allergies or stress, is believed to be a contributing cause of IBD.
Your cat’s genetics and immune system function likely play roles in causing IBD too.
Combination of Potential Causes
However, the most likely cause of IBD is the complex interaction of some or all of these potential causes.
How Do You Treat IBD in Cats?
The primary goal of all treatments for IBD is to reduce gut inflammation in your cat. For this reason, prednisolone and the related drug prednisone, budesonide, or other steroids are often prescribed due to their anti-inflammatory properties. Antibiotics, such as metronidazole, are also commonly prescribed because they can have an anti-inflammatory effect when used long term.
However, steroids or antibiotics likely won’t resolve the underlying cause of inflammation and can lead to further adverse side effects. Treating the cause of your cat’s IBD will vary based upon your cat’s needs, and may take a few rounds of trial and error. Remember that diet, the gut microbiome, environmental factors, and your cat’s genetics (or a combination of these) may be strongly influencing your cat’s IBD.
Here we discuss positive changes you can make to your cat’s diet and gut microbiome to help manage your cat’s IBD.
A common cause of gut inflammation is related to a cat’s diet. Not only can a cat’s dietary needs change as they get older, but also they can develop food allergies or sensitivities to common ingredients in cat food. Your veterinarian may suggest a food trial using a novel protein or a hypoallergenic prescription diet to see if your cat’s symptoms improve.
Some cats with chronic diarrhea benefit from added fiber to the diet, so make sure and consult with your veterinarian about the best kind of fiber to use and how to introduce it into your cat’s diet. Many IBD pet parents have seen improvements in symptoms with dietary therapy or a customized feline IBD diet.
Vitamin B12 Injections
Supplementing your cat’s diet may be necessary to help relieve symptoms of IBD, especially in cases of more severe IBD. Gut inflammation may affect the absorption of vitamin B12 in the gut, so B12, also called cobalamin, injections may be necessary to resolve a B12 deficiency. Many cats benefit from weekly injections or oral doses of vitamin B12, which is essential to digestion and cell signaling.
Prebiotics for cats, such as the addition of dietary fiber, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in your cat’s digestive tract by feeding the beneficial gut bacteria.
Some believe that a probiotic supplement can help, although the effectiveness of specific strains for bacteria and fungi at reducing gut inflammation is unclear. There is little harm in introducing healthy microorganisms to the gut, but identifying imbalances of important gut bacteria with an at-home KittyBiome Gut Health Test will help you determine the best cat probiotic based on your cat’s unique microbiome composition.
Test Cat Gut Health
Why Are Bacterial Imbalances Bad?
Bacterial imbalances in your cat’s gut microbiome can lead to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and vice versa. For example, the GI tract responds to inflammation by increasing mucus production, on which some inflammation-causing bacteria thrive, and thus perpetuates the inflammation cycle. There are many studies that show a correlation between an imbalanced gut bacterial community and IBS or IBD in a variety of animals, including cats and humans.
So how does a gut imbalance even happen? Imbalances can be caused by any disturbances to bacterial populations, such as a round of antibiotics, which can do irreversible damage to the gut microbial community. Your cat’s diet can also contribute to bacterial imbalances caused by gut inflammation.
Benefits of Testing
Microbiome testing identifies all the major bacterial players in your cat’s stool and how abundant those bacteria are. Testing your cat’s stool is an easy, affordable way to get insight into possible bacterial imbalances by comparing your cat’s stool to that of healthy cats. Microbiome testing can identify imbalances of specific bacteria, possibly making the underlying condition easier to address before it leads to a chronic health issue.
Restoring a Healthy Gut with Fecal Microbiota Transplantation
The most effective way to restore a healthy gut microbiome is with a Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT), a process where fecal material from a healthy donor is transferred to the gut of the sick patient. A FMT introduces a complete and healthy community of cat-specific bacteria, which once established in the gut, can resolve the imbalance and resultant inflammation.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that symptoms of IBD are improved following FMT treatment. FMT procedures can be invasive and expensive, but luckily oral delivery of FMT has been shown to be just as effective.
Gut Restore Supplements for cats (fecal transplant FMT capsules) are a convenient, affordable, and antibiotic-free approach to promote a healthy and balanced gut microbiome. Furthermore, a recent study showed that 83% of cats with IBD who took the supplements had an improvement in IBD symptoms after one month. Along with reduced symptoms, many pet parents report quality of life improvements in their cat, read about Marigold’s story.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a common condition in cats that manifests as a variety of symptoms. While there is no cure for IBD, scientists and veterinarians have a better understanding of the causes, diagnostic process, and treatments of feline IBD than ever before.
In addition, even more promising disease management tools are currently being studied. Restoring the gut microbiome is the latest innovative practice for cats with IBD, but it is important to still consult with your veterinarian before you try any of the approaches discussed above.
This article was originally published on November 15, 2018 and updated on April 15, 2021.