By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 April 2011)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a common gastrointestinal disorder in cats, particularly those that are middle aged or older (though some younger cats are afflicted as well). Symptoms may include:
- recurrent episodes of diarrhea
- soiling outside the litter box
- intermittent vomiting
- weight loss
- mucous or blood in the stool
- straining to defecate
- frequent defecation
- appetite changes
- rumbling sounds emanating from the guts
The most common symptoms are diarrhea and/or vomiting that come and go, as well as having accidents outside the litter box.
Sadly, many cats that suffer from IBD and start soiling around the house as a result are mistreated or abandoned to shelters because their owners assume that the problem is behavioural rather than medical.
Causes of IBD in Cats
According to Fox et al. (2006), IBD is caused by long-term stimulation of the immune system that disrupts a cat’s normal digestive functioning. The most likely culprit is cat food – in particular, cheap, high-carbohydrate cat foods (especially dry foods). These foods have been implicated in a number of other feline health problems as well, including feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD) and diabetes. Many cats are also sensitive to the poor-quality proteins and artificial ingredients used in the majority of commercial cat foods, particularly the bargain brands.
According to Kirk, Debraekeleer, and Armstrong (2000), cats evolved to eat meat only, which is evident in the fact that they have shorter digestive tracts than omnivores and don’t produce the digestive enzymes required to effectively make use of plant-based nutrients. It’s difficult for them to digest grains and other plant matter, so eating high-carbohydrate cat food can lead to malnourishment, obesity, and digestive difficulties.
Other problems that can cause IBD symptoms include intestinal parasites, food allergies, cancer, metabolic disorders, and certain fungal and viral infections. In addition, stress and anxiety can exacerbate irritable bowel disease. Because there are so many possible causes, a veterinarian should be consulted to rule out non-food-related triggers and discuss treatment options.
Treatments for Feline IBD
Immunosuppressant medications, hypoallergenic diets, and in certain cases, antibiotics are the treatments of choice for IBS, but these approaches are not always effective (veterinarian Arnold Plotnick notes that one case series showed a positive response rate of 79%). Also, some of the medications have side effects and can increase the risk of secondary infections, and relapses may occur even with effective treatment.
Given that stress is a contributing factor, taking the following measures to reduce it can be beneficial:
- In multicat households, provide one litter box for each cat plus a spare, and place them in different, quiet, low-traffic locations around the house.
- Provide each cat with his or her own food and water bowls.
- Provide high perches and kitty condos (a cardboard box with a hole in it is a good budget-conscious option) so that cats have places to climb and hide as needed.
- Spend plenty of quality time with the cat.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), though not as serious as IBD, has many of the same unpleasant symptoms. Exercise has been shown to reduce the symptoms of both IBD (Narula & Fedorak, 2008) and IBS (ScienceDaily, 25 January 2011), so encouraging the cat to get more exercise can be beneficial. You can do this by:
- Engaging in interactive play using a fishing-wand toy
- Providing toys such as catnip mice for solo play
- Leash training the cat to take him out for walks
- Feeding him at the top of a flight of stairs (assuming that he has no mobility limitations)
- Providing a cat tree for climbing
- Adding an outdoor cat run or enclosure or placing a cat fence around a yard for safe outdoor excursions
The risk of triggering IBD can be reduced by making general dietary changes. First and foremost, switch to a premium high-protein wet cat food. When switching a cat’s food, do it gradually because cats don’t respond well to change. Begin by mixing in a little of the new food with the old and gradually increase the amount of new food until the shift is complete.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
- Bronstad, D.C., DVM. (n.d.). “Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” MaxsHouse.com.
- De Papp, E., Dr. (2010). “Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats.” PetPlace.com.
- Fox, M., B.Vet. Med., PhD, DSc, MRCVS; Hodgkins, E., DVM; & Smart, M.E., DVM, PhD. (2006). Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food. Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books.
- Kirk, C.A.; Debraekeleer, J.; & Armstrong, P.J. (2000). “Normal Cats.” In: Hand, M.S.; Thatcher, C.D.; Remillard, R.L., et al. Eds. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition. 4th Edn. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Co., 291-351.
- Mar Vista Animal Medical Center. (14 January 2011). “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” MarVistaVet.com.
- Narula, N., & Fedorak, R.N. (2008). “Exercise and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, 22(5), pp. 497-504.
- Nash, H., DVM, MS. (2011). “Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in Cats.” PetEducation.com.
- PetMD.com. (2011). “Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Cats.”
- Plotnick, A., MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP. (26 July 2006). “Inflammatory Bowel Disease.” ManhattanCats.com.
- ScienceDaily.com. (25 January 2011). “Exercise Improve Symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”