a picture of a cat with IBD and IBS

IBS & IBD in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

IBS and IBD in cats are serious health issues that need to be treated quickly with the guidance of a veterinarian. Keep reading for information about these health issues, their prognoses, and treatment.

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Like humans, cats can have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which are often characterized by diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort. In this guide, we’ll discuss the difference between IBD and IBS in cats, their clinical signs and symptoms, their causes, and how to treat them.

In this guide:

>> Read more: IBD and IBS in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

What are IBD and IBS in cats?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are rising health problems that affect the digestive system of humans as well as animals, such as dogs and cats. While the causes of each issue are different, they have similar symptoms—primarily chronic diarrhea. 

Both of these health issues need to be addressed quickly to prevent further problems from developing.

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What’s the difference between IBS and IBD in cats?

One distinguishing factor between the two similarly sounding issues is that IBS does not involve gut inflammation or any visible signs of disease.1 IBS is a disorder that involves improper movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract. There are a lot of unknowns surrounding cat IBS, and it is often diagnosed only after other GI issues are ruled out. 

IBD, on the other hand, is a broad term describing disorders that involve the presence of inflammatory cells in the digestive tract. Two gastrointestinal diseases that fall under the IBD umbrella are Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.

IBD occurs when the body is abnormally triggered with an immune response that produces chronic irritation or inflammation within the intestinal tract. This gastrointestinal inflammation damages the lining of the digestive tract, leading to sores and narrowing of intestinal wall thickness. Additionally, physical evidence of disease can be seen during diagnostic exams.

Since these two health issues are different, it’s actually possible to have both IBD and IBS.

With all this going on in a cat’s gut, they can’t properly digest food or absorb nutrients. Without good digestion and absorption, further health issues may result.

What causes Inflammatory Bowel Disease in cats?

Theories of the causes of IBD in cats vary. But there is increasing evidence that suggests, “disruptions to the composition of the GI microbiome can lead to detrimental health consequences, including inflammatory enteropathies (e.g., inflammatory bowel disease).”4 In other words, IBD can occur when there’s an unhealthy change to the bacteria in a cat’s gut.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, this can occur “from a complex abnormal interaction between the immune system, diet, bacterial populations in the intestines, and other environmental factors.” Some cats may be predisposed to IBD due to genetic factors of the immune system.

From what we gather from the literature,2,3 it’s a perfect storm involving a couple or more of the following factors.

Causes of IBD in cats

  • Parasitic or bacterial infection: such as  Salmonella, E. coli, or Giardia
  • Imbalance of gut bacteria: Disruptions to the makeup of the GI microbiome can lead to IBD.4 One vet mentioned this could include too much chlorine in drinking water.2 High chlorine levels will negatively affect the good bacteria that is crucial in normal, intestinal functioning.
  • Genetic predisposition: genetic abnormalities of the immune system inherited from the cat’s parents.
  • Poor diet: regularly consuming low-quality ingredients, a low-fiber diet, or high amounts of fat in the diet.
  • Genetically modified foods & herbicides: Recent studies found that genetically modified foods, food additives, and herbicides can be irritating to the stomachs of animals. These can include corn, canola oil, soy, and sugar beets, which are all common in cheap pet foods.
  • Antibiotics & other pharmaceuticals: Antibiotics damage the microorganisms that live in the digestive system. Avoid these unless necessary and prescribed by a vet. 
  • Stress: Although a less supported theory, stress has been associated with other inflammatory diseases in cats.
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What causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome in cats

IBS in cats is less understood since it’s typically diagnosed only after better-known issues are ruled out. Although the causes of IBS are still debated, it is generally thought to be caused by the following issues.

Causes of IBS in cats

  • Abnormal colonic myoelectrical activity and motility: abnormal colon activity and movement of food through the GI tract.
  • Diets low in fiber: Fiber is important for keeping the digestive tract working smoothly. It removes waste from the body.
  • Food allergy: an intolerance to certain food sources, usually a protein
  • Stress: events that trigger a hypersensitive response in the cat, like being left alone or traveling
  • Changes in neural or neurochemical regulation of colonic function: Good bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes. When these change, the physiological processes (such as digestion) may not function properly.

How do I know if my cat has IBS or IBD?

Obtaining an accurate diagnosis from a vet is the best way to determine if your pet is suffering from either IBS or IBD. You can chat with a vet now about your cat’s symptoms or visit your usual veterinarian.

Here are some clinical signs of IBS and IBD:

IBS symptoms in cats

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea or frequent passage of small amounts of feces in mucus
  • Nausea

IBD symptoms in cats

  • Chronic vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Blood in stool
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite

Symptoms can vary in severity and frequency. The symptoms you notice will depend on what parts of the GI tract are affected. For example, if the stomach and upper parts of the GI tract are inflamed, the cat will likely vomit. If inflammation occurs in the colon, the clinical signs will likely be diarrhea, which may contain blood.

How to treat IBD & IBS in cats

Treatment of IBD and IBS in cats will likely include a fecal examination, medication, and dietary therapy.

Improve your cat’s diet

The most critical factor in treating IBD and IBS is your cat’s diet. You may need to identify specific sensitivities as well as to conduct an overall upgrade to their nutrition.

To paraphrase one study: nutrition directly impacts both the gut’s microbiome and the body’s digestive organs, and it’s important for these organs and organisms to be healthy for the body to be able to properly digest the nutrients it needs.

Most traditional cat kibbles are so over-processed that they leave little nutrition the body can use. These foods are full of low-quality ingredients, fillers, and artificial preservatives. The result is a food devoid of essential nutrition (commonly known as “empty calories”) that is difficult for your cat to digest.

You could see remarkable results by switching your cat to a hypoallergenic diet of real, fresh food that is easy to digest and full of essential vitamins and minerals.

While it’s possible to make this diet on your own, it’s difficult to nail down the precise nutritional balance a cat’s body requires. Fortunately, a number of fresh cat food companies offer high-quality, human-grade meals.

Two specific options we recommend looking into are Smalls Cat Food and Nom Nom Cat Food. Both companies offer freshly prepared meals made from high-quality ingredients that you or I could eat. These meals are prepared in USDA-certified kitchens and are cooked at a low temperature to preserve the nutrients typically destroyed during the kibble-making process.

Smalls offers more recipes, textures, and treat options for picky cats. The variety in protein options, specifically, is worth noting here, since sensitivity to certain proteins is often a cause of cat IBD and IBS. You can learn more in our Smalls Cat Food review.

Currently, Nom Nom only offers a chicken-based recipe, which limits your options. But it does also offer a gut health testing kit and a cat probiotic supplement, both of which could help illuminate the health of your cat’s gut and improve their digestion.

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Other brands worth looking into are Open Farm and Just Food For Dogs (which also offers a cat line and prescription diets).

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IBD requires veterinary assistance

IBD is a serious health condition and requires a veterinarian’s assistance. Treating IBD in cats can be difficult due to the complexity of how the immune system interacts with other factors. There’s no single best treatment, so vets try various combinations of food trials and medications to see what relieves the inflammation.

If you don’t have a vet, you can chat with one online to get guidance. However, your cat may need a physical examination and routine laboratory tests to get a definitive diagnosis.

Your vet will likely have you monitor your cat’s bowel movements and keep track of stool consistency, constipation, and any abdominal pain. They also will typically recommend medication to treat any intestinal parasites that may have gone undetected.

When your cat’s IBD is caused by a reaction to food, a full recovery is possible. In this case, your vet may recommend changing the cat’s diet to a new protein source, a plant-based diet, or an elimination diet to determine what foods are causing an inflammatory response. Symptoms usually subside in as little as two weeks if the disease is caused by food.

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Probiotics, supplements & B12 for cats with IBD

Since the gut microbiome is such an integral part of this disease, a daily inclusion of probiotics may help increase the good bacteria within the GI tract. We recommend checking out Nom Nom’s microbiome supplement for cats or Complete Probiotics by Dr. Mercola.

Results from several dog studies4 indicate that multi-strain probiotic treatments can facilitate clinical remission in dogs diagnosed with IBD, so it could aid cats with IBD as well. Other benefits observed were a reduction in gastrointestinal inflammation, the reproduction of inflamed cells, and a reduction in leaky gut, among other improvements.

IBD can prevent proper absorption of certain vitamins, so your vet may also recommend giving B vitamins, B12 for cats, and folate to your cat.

Quercetin, a naturally occurring plant pigment that can be found in this supplement, has been known to have an anti-allergy effect. When taken with glutamine and probiotics, it has been shown to repair damage to the intestinal tract (commonly called “leaky gut”).2 It’s a good idea to get approval from your vet first, however, as the dosage needs to be precise and quercetin should be avoided by pets with kidney disease.

If the above steps do not show relief, some vets will prescribe a steroid, such as prednisolone, to reduce chronic inflammation.

IBS in cats

Although less serious than IBD, it’s still important to include your vet while treating irritable bowel syndrome in cats. Eliminate any unnecessary stressors that may be contributing to your cat’s IBS. Since digestion is a concern, feed your cat healthy food that is easily digestible and high in fiber. Nutritious, fibrous foods will restore and maintain proper GI movement (see our recommendations above).

You should also ask your vet about adding digestive enzymes or other supplements, like Dr. Mercola GI Support to your cat’s food.

How long do cats with IBD live?

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, the prognosis for inflammatory bowel disease in cats is good. However, because of the seriousness of the disease, recovery requires strict adherence to your vet’s treatment plan, which will likely include a prescribed diet and medications. 

Even with the right management, symptoms can flare up. During relapses, It’s critical for both you and your vet to vigilantly monitor these episodes so you can adjust the treatment.

End stage inflammatory bowel disease in cats

If your cat has struggled with IBD for an extended period of time, or they’re too old or unhealthy to cope with the stress it puts on their body, your vet may recommend euthanization. As difficult as this is, you don’t want to prolong the suffering of your pet or force them into a low quality of life.

However, as we said in the previous section, the general prognosis for cat IBD is good, and most cases are manageable. 

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Bottom Line: Feline IBD & IBS are treatable, but you should act fast

Neither IBS nor IBD are health issues to take lightly. The faster your cat receives treatment, the better the chance of resolving the problem. Work with your vet to identify your cat’s triggers and upgrade their food to a more digestible, healthy diet. This can help resolve current issues and also has the potential to prevent new problems from developing.

References

  1. https://vetspecialists.co.uk/fact-sheets-post/inflammatory-bowel-disease-fact-sheet/
  2. Pitcairn, R. H., & Pitcairn, S. H. (2017). Dr. Pitcairn’s complete guide to natural health for dogs and cats. Rodale. 
  3. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/inflammatory-bowel-disease-dogs-cats/ 
  4. The Effects of Nutrition on the Gastrointestinal Microbiome of Cats and Dogs: Impact on Health and Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7329990/#B136 

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