Second only to upper-respiratory illness, digestive disorders are the chief reason for feline veterinary visits. Cats with digestive problems exhibit symptoms ranging from vomiting and diarrhea, to weight loss, constipation and excessive gas. While the causes are many, feline IBS and IBD are two common digestive disorders. On many occasions, they are mistaken for one another, which is unfortunate because they call for very different treatments. In this post, we’ll cover the basics and try to clear up the confusion surrounding these disorders.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, also affects humans. For us, symptoms of this disorder include lower abdominal pain, excessive gas and a marked change in stools, among others. All of these need not occur simultaneously, although they sometimes do. Causes range from suffering from excessive stress, taking a newly prescribed medication and the development of dietary sensitivities. In response, the intestinal tract repeatedly and painfully contracts, like a spasming muscle, leading to stool changes. If you or anyone you know has endured these symptoms, you’ll know that IBS is no walk in the park.
It may surprise you to learn that the gut has the largest concentration of nerves outside of the brain. In fact, both the gut and the brain originate from the same clump of cells that divide to form a fetus in utero. Further, the brain and gut are directly connected via the Vagus nerve. When the condition of one is upset, the other follows suit. It’s no wonder people say that they trust or think with their gut … half of your nerve cells are located there! Presumably, this is the reason you feel “butterflies in your stomach” before a public performance or any other event perceived as threatening or frightening.
It’s not too much of a leap to see that the same feelings and experiences apply to your cat’s system. Think about it … has your cat ever defecated in the carrier on the way to the vet, or other times when stressed or frightened? Has your cat inappropriately eliminated (i.e., outside the litterbox) or vomited when there were changes in your household, but most of the time behaves normally? If so, rest assured that this isn’t unusual. In fact, it happens fairly frequently and is referred to as feline IBS. The best way to deal with feline IBS is to effectively manage stress. For tips on moderating stressors in your cat’s life, we offer an article and a video previously posted on our blog.
Conversely, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or IBD, is characterized by chronic diarrhea and/or vomiting, accompanied by gradual weight loss. In IBD, long-term intestinal inflammation leads to thickening of the gut’s lining. As the disease progresses, the thickening inhibits the body’s absorption of vital nutrients. As a consequence, cats lose weight in spite of having a normal - or even an increased - appetite. If left untreated, IBD can be debilitating and potentially fatal.
IBD is usually diagnosed by exclusion; that is, in most cases, bloodwork, fecal and urine tests all come back with normal results. When we see a cat who is experiencing chronic vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss, and all of these tests come back normal, IBD moves to the top of the diagnostic list.
A definitive diagnosis requires an intestinal biopsy done by endoscopy, so most pet parents elect to wait and see if medication and a diet change improve symptoms. The only real drawback to postponing the endoscopic procedure is that the symptoms for IBD are the same as those for intestinal lymphoma, a common cancer in cats, in which case catching it earlier is better. To make matters more complicated, cats with intestinal lymphoma can improve on the same medications used for IBD, albeit temporarily. If your cat is suffering from chronic digestive issues, I strongly advise you to make an appointment with your veterinarian sooner rather than later since delaying a diagnosis of cancer is never a good idea.
As mentioned above, treatment of IBD generally requires medication and a diet change. Prognosis depends on the severity of the disease and any concurrent factors, such as hyperthyroidism or kidney disease. Medications usually include an immune suppressant, like prednisolone or budesonide, and possibly an antibiotic. Dietary changes typically include adding soluble fiber and feeding smaller and more frequent meals, as well as feeding a food that features prebiotics and probiotics. Take the time to meet with your vet to determine a treatment suited just for your cat. The good news is that cats with IBD can enjoy a good quality of life and live for a long time with proper care.
As we’ve seen, IBS and IBD are two similar disorders but with very real differences. If your cat has occasional digestive problems during stressful events, but is not losing weight and appears otherwise normal, it’s probably IBS. It may be helpful to utilize the stress management tips linked above and talk with your vet about an appropriate treatment for anxiety and the occasional use of anti-diarrheal medication if your kitty has a flare-up. On the other hand, if your cat appears to have a more chronic problem marked by vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss, then you might be dealing with IBD. If this is the case, please have your sweet kitty checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Thank you so much for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks