Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in Cats: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Cathy Meeks, MS, DVM, DACVIM
Jul 27, 2020
   |   4 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

Inflammatory bowel disease is actually a group of gastrointestinal (GI) diseases for which no single cause is known. Also known as IBD, inflammatory bowel disease in cats results in the inflammation of the stomach, small intestines, and/or large intestines.

This can be a frustrating disease to diagnose and treat, but cats can have a great quality of life and live a long time with the appropriate treatment.

Here’s what you need to know about IBD in cats, from symptoms and causes to diagnosis and treatment.

What Causes IBD in Cats?

Though no single cause is known, more than one cause of IBD in cats is usually suspected. These include:

  • Hypersensitivity to bacteria

  • Food allergies that may include meat proteins, food additives, artificial coloring, preservatives, milk proteins, and gluten (wheat)

  • Genetic factors

Symptoms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats

Symptoms of IBD in cats usually are chronic and occur with increased frequency over time (daily, weekly, or monthly). Here are some symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease in cats:

How Do Vets Diagnose IBD in Cats?

Your veterinarian will take a detailed history and ask you questions about the duration and frequency of symptoms.

A complete physical examination will then be conducted, followed by routine laboratory tests, including:

  • Complete blood count

  • Biochemistry profile

  • Urinalysis

  • Fecal analysis

Although these tests do not definitively diagnose IBD in cats, they are noninvasive and help rule out other diseases (such as kidney disease, elevated thyroid levels, and liver disease) where the symptoms can be identical to IBD.

The results of these routine laboratory tests are often normal. In some patients, anemia and an abnormally high number of white blood cells (as in infections) may be present. In cats with IBD, abnormal levels of proteins and liver enzymes may also be found. Your veterinarian may also conduct tests to check the functioning of your cat’s small intestine.

Abdominal Ultrasound

An abdominal ultrasound is likely to be recommended to rule out other diseases not found in blood work (such as pancreatitis or cancer). It can also help vets assess the stomach and intestinal wall thickness, which can be significantly thicker in cats with IBD.

Stomach Biopsy

Your veterinarian may recommend biopsies of your cat’s stomach and intestines. This can be done with surgery or with endoscopy. Biopsies are the only way to definitively diagnose IBD and determine the extent of the disease.

Once a diagnosis is made, a tailored treatment plan will be created for your pet.

Treatment and Prognosis for IBD in Cats

In most cats, IBD cannot be “cured” but can be successfully managed. However, even after complete recovery, relapses are common.

Major goals of treatment are:

  • Stabilizing your cat’s weight

  • Relieving GI symptoms

  • Reducing the immune system's response

Diet trials, immunosuppressive drugs, and antibiotics are key components of the therapy for inflammatory bowel disease in cats. Additionally, cobalamin is given in some cats to counteract deficiency of this nutrient.

Food Trials

Dietary management is another essential component of therapy, with hypoallergenic or novel protein diets being the most recommended. It usually takes two to four weeks or so to see if your cat responds to such a diet.

It is not uncommon to try several types of diets, so it could take several months to see if the diet is effective.

During the diet trial, only use the prescribed food. Avoid giving your cat treats, tuna, or anything flavored, including medications (talk to your vet about medications).

Keep a journal of the symptoms prior to and during a diet trial for your veterinarian to see if any difference is noted.

Antibiotics and Supplements

In some cases, a change in diet alone is not enough to treat your cat’s IBD, and medications are needed.

The most common medications used in the treatment of IBD are drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics if your cat has diarrhea. In some cases, multiple medications may be necessary.

The goal of IBD treatment is to minimize the symptoms so your cat can have a great quality of life. Once that is reached, the medications will be tapered by your veterinarian to the lowest effective dose possible. In some cases, cats cannot be completely weaned off of medications and require lifelong medications.

What’s the Outlook for Cats With IBD?

The short-term prognosis in most cats with IBD is excellent. Be patient with the forms of treatment suggested by your veterinarian, and strictly adhere to their diet recommendations.

In most cases of IBD in cats, living a long and happy life is likely. The sooner the diagnosis is made and treatment is started, the better chances your cat has to recover.

In more severe cases, cats can have a difficult time responding to treatments, or could not respond at all, and the prognosis is poorer for these cats.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Peter Sterling

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