Feline Irritable Bowel Disease FAQs

Feline irritable bowel syndrome is just one of the many cat health issues that Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Service sees in her clientele.

In this exclusive interview, she offers important facts for cat parents (as she calls them) on the causes, symptoms and treatments for feline IBS.

Donna Cosmato (DC): What Is feline irritable bowel syndrome?

Dr. Cathy: The term irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is used once all the diseases or conditions that can cause diarrhea, which include parasitism, bacterial overgrowth, food allergies, and ulcerative colitis are ruled out.

In general, feline irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder that causes inflammation in the lining of the intestinal tract with no cause. It can be present in either or both the small and large intestine. Enteritis is the term generally used for IBS of the small intestine, whereas if the large intestine is affected, colitis is the terminology most commonly used.

DC:How is feline IBS different than canine irritable bowel syndrome?

Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Services

Dr. Cathy: It’s not really different, it just hasn’t been recognized as long in cats; and the medication is different since cats do not process drugs like dogs. As recently as 2006, veterinarians have stated IBS doesn’t exist in cats.

DC: Is IBS the same as IBD?

Dr. Cathy: They are not the same; however, many people become confused and use the terms interchangeably. Be careful when doing more research that your source has used the correct terminology.

  • IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome:This is a functional problem in the intestines. Functional problem means there is nothing else going on; your kitty just has the runs.
  • IBD or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (sometimes also called infiltrative bowel disease): Occurs when the patient suffers diarrhea and frequency of defecation due to the infiltration of inflammatory cells into the wall of the intestine.

IBD is diagnosed based on biopsy results, and a sample of intestinal tissue is needed by the lab. In humans, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are subcategories of IBD. UC has been diagnosed in very rare cases in cats. Whether Crohn’s disease exists in animals is controversial as the disease is poorly understood in humans.

DC: What are the symptoms of Feline IBS?

Dr. Cathy: The first symptom most owners notice is an increase in their cat’s appetite. This may be followed by a sharp decrease in appetite within a few days. Following this warning signal, diarrhea and vomiting may begin or blood may be present in the cat’s stool. Other symptoms can include weight loss, lack of energy, and kidney failure.

They may notice their pet appears to be in pain while using the litter box and having a bowel movement and that is because IBS can cause very painful stomach cramps. Some cats may suffer from all of the symptoms stated above, while others only manifest a single symptom, which makes diagnosing feline IBS quite difficult at times. Because dehydration can occur rapidly due to the diarrhea and vomiting, and dehydration can cause severe complications, owners should take their cats to a veterinarian as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment. The thing that is the most frustrating to the vet is some patients may only have “the runs” without any other sign.

Sonny BunnyDC: How is IBS Diagnosed?

Dr. Cathy: Diagnosis is by rule out (also known as exclusion). Most often, these cats are dewormed ad nauseum even in the face of negative fecal tests; they are given metronidazole (Flagyl ®), which is an antibacterial, antiparasitic medication. These cats develop bacterial/fungal imbalances in their intestines from the overuse of antibiotics.

However, other “testing” includes doing a food trial to see if that makes things better. Some cats’ parents will allow their pets to have their intestines biopsied, which involves surgically removing several tissue samples from the intestines and sending them to a lab for analysis. In these cases, the laboratory usually can find no cause for the straining and diarrhea. In cases of IBD, the lab will find a cause for the diarrhea; however, the question will still remain as to whether the patient will respond to treatment.

In the process of ruling out all other causes of diarrhea, internal medicine conditions must also be considered. Over function of the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism), kidney failure, heart failure and diabetes all need to be considered in the kitty with diarrhea. Therefore, full blood screening is recommended to be sure no biological cause of the diarrhea is missed.

In some cases, the issue is with the neurotransmitters in the intestines. Because the same neurotransmitters that are in the brain are in the guts, testing of these neurotransmitter levels, and appropriate treatment based on these values, can help with the intestinal problem. Neurotransmitter testing is a specialized test using the kitty’s urine; the urine is sent to a human laboratory, as this testing is not commonly pursued in our pets.

DC: How Is IBS treated?

Dr. Cathy: Food trials and elimination diets are considered part of the testing as well as part of the treatment in feline IBS. The goal is to reduce the inflammation in the gut. Other things that can reduce inflammation are feeding high quality wet foods that do not contain by-products or grains, or the use of probiotics, omega fatty acid supplements, and digestive enzymes.

Medications may also be given, with the most commonly prescribed ones being steroids. Of these, prednisone is the most often prescribed steroid for feline IBS. Other medications commonly given for this condition are antibiotics, as mentioned above. Recently, studies in humans with IBS have shown great promise using low-dose naltrexone off-label. For more information on this medication, or the neurotransmitter testing, ask your veterinarian. As these are newer treatments, it may be something new to your vet.

A cat that is suffering from feline irritable bowel syndrome needs immediate professional help as well as lots of love from the pet parent. With quick medical intervention, the odds are good that your pet will soon be on the mend and returning your affection.

Dr. Cathy Alinovi is the co-author of Dinner PAWsible, a cookbook designed for pet parents everywhere who want to feed their pets nutritious meals that will keep them happy and healthy. She is partnering with Donna Cosmato on another book, which will give pet owners answers to their mostly commonly asked questions about dog health. The authors plan to publish the book early in 2013.

Resources: Email interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi, Hoofstock Veterinary Services, http://www.hoofstockvet.com/, image provided by and used with permission of Dr. Alinovi

Image: Sonny Bunny by Cindy See under CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons