Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats: What It Is and How to Help
Written by Ellen Barber and Dr. Tauer, DVM
Published on April 15, 2021, updated on March 16, 2023
When your cat is suffering from frequent vomiting, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, or other uncomfortable digestive issues, you want to know what’s wrong and how to fix it. But after ruling out several possible explanations for these symptoms (like parasites, food sensitivities, and hyperthyroidism), your veterinarian may conclude that your cat has a condition called inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). What exactly is IBD? What causes it? And what’s the best way to help your cat feel better?
What is Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease?
Illustration of the Cat Digestive System
Inflammatory bowel disease is a condition in which inflammatory cells penetrate the wall of the intestine, causing the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to become inflamed (irritated and swollen) and interfering with important digestive and immune functions of the gut. Feline IBD is a common disorder, particularly in older cats and those with certain genetic predispositions.
Inflammation causes thickening of the mucosal lining of the GI tract, and that thickening hampers the normal digestion of food and interferes with nutrient absorption. Despite the name, inflammatory bowel disease can involve inflammation in any portion of the GI tract, from the stomach to the large intestine. Left untreated, chronic inflammation can lead to even more severe conditions, such as feline gastrointestinal lymphoma.
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,” which is used to describe acute (sudden, short-term) disturbances of the colon caused by stress.
Although IBS and “stress colitis” share some of the outward signs of IBD (symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting), intestinal biopsies of patients with IBS and “stress colitis” fail to show inflammation.
Colitis literally means “colon inflammation,” which is confirmed by the finding of excess inflammatory cells within the colon walls. In IBD, inflammatory cells infiltrate the intestinal wall, leading to inflammation of the colon (colitis), the small intestine (enteritis), or the stomach (gastritis).
Your veterinarian (DVM) may also use the term chronic enteropathy, which is a broader category encompassing all chronic issues related to the GI tract of pets.
What Are The Clinical Signs of IBD In Cats?
While the symptoms of IBD depend on the location and severity of the inflammation, these are the most common clinical signs in cats:
Blood in the stool
Mucus in the stool
Straining in the litterbox
Is IBD in Cats Painful?
IBD can cause pain, such as abdominal cramping from diarrhea. However, a cat with IBD is more likely to experience discomfort rather than severe pain. For example, in some cases of IBD, cats may vomit hairballs because an inflamed digestive tract can’t move material along properly.
A cat who uncharacteristically protests when picked up may have abdominal pain. Keep an eye out for this kind of behavior, and contact your veterinarian if you ever suspect your cat is in pain.
What to Expect at the Vet’s
The symptoms associated with IBD all have multiple potential causes, so figuring out the right diagnosis for your cat may take some time. Your veterinarian will typically use some of the following tests to narrow down the list of possible causes of your cat’s symptoms:
Vitamin B12 testing
Pancreatic tests (e.g., lipase test, trypsin-like immunoreactivity test)
Imaging (e.g., x-rays, ultrasound)
Biopsy (via endoscope)
Abdominal exploratory surgery (in rare cases)
These tests will allow your veterinarian to rule out a number of potential causes of inflammation, such as intestinal parasites, cancer, food sensitivities or food allergies, ingestion of toxins, foreign body obstructions, and disorders of the liver, pancreas, thyroid, or kidneys.
An official diagnosis of IBD can only be made via biopsy (taking a sample of tissue from the affected part of the GI tract), but cats are often treated for IBD without an official diagnosis. Your cat may get a “provisional diagnosis” of IBD, meaning that based on the available information, your veterinarian believes IBD is the most likely explanation for your cat’s symptoms.
But because so many conditions can cause IBD-like symptoms, sometimes cats are diagnosed with IBD when they in fact have a food intolerance, a thyroid disorder (like hyperthyroidism), or intestinal lymphoma (cancer). Additionally, like some humans, some cats may start out with IBD and later develop intestinal 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 commercial cat foods contain ingredients that encourage inflammation. Diets that are high in carbohydrates feed the carb-loving kinds of gut bacteria, which are the kind that cause inflammation.
Eating too much is also a factor: taking in too many calories alters the behavior of cells and increases the immune system’s inflammation response. In addition, extensive research on obesity has established that high levels of body fat lead to chronic inflammation.
Or your cat’s diet may be involved in their symptoms because of a particular food sensitivity or food allergy. A food sensitivity (or food intolerance) is an inability to digest a particular ingredient; for example, lactose intolerance—the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products—is very common in cats. In contrast, a food allergy is an overactive immune system response to a trigger, usually a protein source, that the body misinterprets as a threat. In cats, food sensitivities are much more common than true food allergies.
A food sensitivity (like lactose intolerance) can certainly cause vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms, but gut inflammation is more likely with a food allergy, since inflammation is an immune reaction.
Periodontal disease (gum disease) has been identified as a contributing factor in many other health conditions, including IBD (via the gum–gut axis). Harmful bacteria that cause trouble in the mouth—like bad breath and red, swollen gums (gingivitis)—can travel farther down the GI tract, triggering an inflammatory immune response in the gut. In addition, inflammation in the mouth and inflammation in the gut influence each other, so your cat’s oral health has a direct effect on their gut health, and vice versa.
Gut Microbiome Changes
Changes to the gut microbiome—the ecosystem of microorganisms that inhabit the intestinal tract—can also cause inflammation. For example, antibiotics can kill important bacteria in the gut that perform anti-inflammatory functions, allowing the inflammation-causing bacteria to flourish and actually worsening gut inflammation. Unhealthy shifts in the composition of the gut microbiome and reduced diversity of gut bacteria are well-known characteristics of IBD.
Combination of Potential Causes
The most likely cause of IBD is the complex interaction of some or all of these potential factors.
Treatment: What’s the Best Way to Help Your IBD Cat?
The primary goal of any treatment for IBD is to reduce the inflammation of the GI tract. For this reason, steroids like prednisolone (or the related drug prednisone) and budesonide are often prescribed for 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 and antibiotics typically won’t resolve the underlying cause of inflammation and can lead to further adverse side effects. The best treatment for your cat’s IBD will depend on your cat’s individual case, and finding the optimal approach may take a few rounds of trial and error. Remember that diet, the gut microbiome, environmental elements, and your cat’s genes (or a combination of these factors) may be strongly influencing your cat’s IBD.
The good news is that you can do a lot to help manage your cat’s IBD by making positive changes to your cat’s diet and gut microbiome.
Diet is the most effective way to manage your cat’s gut health. What you feed your cat determines what their gut bacteria eat too.
A very common factor in gut inflammation is a cat’s diet. As a cat gets older, their dietary needs change, and they can also develop food sensitivities or allergies to common ingredients in cat foods, especially if they have eaten the same food for many years.
Your veterinarian may suggest a food trial using a novel protein (a protein source your cat has never eaten before) or a hypoallergenic prescription diet to see if your cat’s symptoms improve.
Some cats with chronic diarrhea benefit from added fiber in their diet, so ask your veterinarian about the best kind of fiber to use (inulin is especially good for cats) and how to introduce it gradually into your cat’s diet. Many IBD pet parents have seen symptoms improve significantly 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 more severe cases. Gut inflammation may affect the absorption of vitamin B12, which is essential to digestion and cell signaling, so subcutaneous injections of B12 (also called cobalamin) may be necessary to resolve or prevent a deficiency in this vitamin. Many cats benefit from weekly injections or oral doses of vitamin B12.
Prebiotics, which are particular kinds of dietary fiber molecules, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in your cat’s digestive tract. Prebiotics have also been found to help counteract the inflammation caused by a high-fat diet.
Different bacteria eat different things, so by feeding the right prebiotics, you can encourage the kinds of gut bacteria that will improve and support your cat’s digestive health. Examples of these prebiotic fibers are inulin, mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS), and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS). FOS has the advantage of being especially palatable to cats.
There are a lot of probiotic supplements out there that claim to help with IBD, although the effectiveness of specific strains of probiotic bacteria for reducing gut inflammation in humans is unclear.
Some probiotic products marketed for cats may temporarily improve diarrhea, but they can’t rebalance a disrupted microbiome. That’s because these products tend to contain large quantities of just a few kinds of bacteria, and they’re typically not bacteria that are native to cats.
One probiotic we do recommend is Saccharomyces boulardii. S. boulardii is not a type of bacteria. It’s a strain of yeast that has been extensively studied for its probiotic effects. S. boulardii been shown to be especially effective at resolving diarrhea in pets with chronic intestinal disease.Our KittyBiome S. boulardii + FOS Powder combines this probiotic yeast with the prebiotic FOS to improve stool consistency, reduce diarrhea, and support healthy gut function.
Test Your Cat’s Gut Health
The best way to know how to help your cat’s individual gut microbiome is with an easy, at-home KittyBiome Gut Health Test.
Benefits of Testing
Microbiome testing uses DNA analysis to identify all the different types of bacteria in a small sample of your cat’s poop and tells you how abundant those bacteria are in their gut. A Gut Health Test is a safe, affordable way to find out about possible bacterial imbalances by comparing your cat’s results to those of healthy cats. By identifying any missing beneficial bacterial groups, revealing the presence of any harmful populations, and describing imbalances of specific bacteria, microbiome testing can often help pet parents and veterinarians address the underlying condition before it leads to a chronic health issue.
Why Are Bacterial Imbalances Unhealthy?
Imbalances among the various bacterial populations 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. Some inflammation-causing bacteria thrive on the nutrients found in mucus, so by feeding those harmful bacteria, the increased mucus response actually perpetuates the inflammation cycle. Many studies have found a correlation between an imbalanced gut bacterial community and IBD in a variety of animals, including cats and humans.
What Causes a Gut Microbiome Imbalance?
So how does a gut imbalance even happen? Imbalances can be caused by any disturbance to bacterial populations, such as an illness or a course of antibiotics, which can do long-lasting damage to the gut’s bacterial community. A cat’s diet can also contribute to bacterial imbalances by promoting inflammation of the GI tract.
Treating IBD with Fecal Microbiota Transplantation
Because gut microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis) is now widely recognized as a prominent feature of IBD, new approaches to treating this disease focus on restoring balance in the gut.
The most effective way to restore a healthy gut microbiome is with fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), a process in which fecal material from a healthy donor is transferred to the gut of a sick patient. FMT introduces a complete community of healthy microorganisms, which becomes established in the recipient’s gut, resolving the imbalance and reducing inflammation.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that symptoms of IBD are improved by FMT treatment. FMT can be done via colonoscopy, enema, or endoscopy, but these procedures can be invasive and expensive—and in pets they typically require anesthesia. Fortunately, FMT via oral delivery has been shown to be just as effective.
Our KittyBiome Gut Restore Supplement (an oral FMT capsule) is a convenient, affordable, and antibiotic-free way to reestablish a healthy and balanced gut microbiome. In a 2019 study, 83% of cats with IBD who took the Gut Restore Supplements experienced an improvement in IBD symptoms after one month. For many cats with IBD, reducing their symptoms means a huge improvement in quality of life. Consider Marigold’s story: chronic diarrhea landed this shelter cat on the list for euthanasia, but restoring balance to her gut microbiome resolved her symptoms and turned her life around.
Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian
Is there a cure for my cat’s IBD?
How do you know whether my cat has IBD or lymphoma?
What are the best ways to introduce a new diet to my cat to rule out food sensitivity?
When do you recommend doing a biopsy over simply treating symptoms?