IBD In Pet Cats and Dogs

IBD Affects Cats and Dogs Differently Than it Does Humans

Cat and Dog at the Vet
Cats and dogs can develop inflammation in their digestive system, too. It's often treated with a change and diet and sometimes medications. Image © Yuri_Arcurs / E+ / Getty Images

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is not only a disease in humans, it can also occur in cats and dogs. Our furry friends with IBD have many of the same symptoms, and are treated in a similar fashion. That's right -- Fido and Snowball may have to undergo extensive testing and be treated with corticosteroids just as their human counterparts are.

What Causes IBD in Animals?

Just as we don't know the cause of IBD in humans, no one is sure of the exact cause in animals.

There is speculation that IBD may be caused by a variety of factors such as infections, parasites, allergies as well as genetics and nutrition. In many cases extensive testing to determine the cause isn't made, and the symptoms are treated. There is also a theory that IBD may not be a disease at all, but merely a catchall used for a variety of intestinal conditions with similar symptoms.

Dog breeds such as Basenjis, Boxers and German Shepherds may be more susceptible to IBD. IBD tends to be fairly common in middle-aged cats.

What Are the Symptoms?

The primary symptoms of IBD in cats and dogs are often diarrhea and vomiting. If you've ever owned a pet, you know that cats and dogs tend to vomit more often than humans. Cats get hairballs that may cause vomiting even with the use of hairball medications and frequent brushing. Both dogs and cats (especially kittens) tend to eat things they shouldn't.

My dogs ate shoes, garbage, even dirt from the back yard, and my cats gnawed on the yarn from my knitting. Even with these reasons for stomach upset, a pet owner may notice that their pet is vomiting more often than usual or than other pets.

Diarrhea or abnormal stools may also be present. Loose stools may also contain mucus or blood, but that's not always the case.

Cats may stop using the litter box altogether and defecate in some other place in the house.

The vomiting and diarrhea may come and go, or it may be constant. Other symptoms that may be present are weight loss, depression, anorexia, borborygmus, abdominal pain (difficult to measure in animals), excessive flatulence, and fever.

How is IBD diagnosed in pets?

Before a definitive diagnosis of IBD is returned, other causes must be ruled out. This is commonly done through a series of non-invasive types of testing and examination.

The first step a veterinarian might take in diagnosing IBD in a pet is to take a history and do a physical exam. When discussing history, frequency of symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting will be important, as well as other symptoms such as fever and weight loss. If the vet has seen the animal before, they may notice any marked changes in attitude and weight. During the physical exam the vet may pay close attention to the abdomen and press on it to feel the intestines and determine if they are thickened.

Next non-invasive tests such as blood, urine and stool samples may be taken for testing. If the pet is very sick with IBD the liver and pancreas may also be inflamed. This will show up in the blood as elevated liver enzymes and amylase (produced by the pancreas). As with humans, potassium and protein levels may also be low due to vomiting and diarrhea. If blood has been passed in the stool, anemia could be present.

Urine and stool analysis can help to narrow down the cause of the symptoms. A urinalysis can show if there is kidney disease. Stool samples can be tested for parasites and bacteria. Cats may also be tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

To rule out symptoms being caused by a tumor or other growth a radiograph or an ultrasound may be done. These tests may not return any abnormal results in a pet with IBD, and are used primarily to rule out other causes. In the absence of any conclusive results, the vet may move on to more invasive testing. As is done in humans, a biopsy continues to be the gold standard to determine if IBD is present. A vet may get a sample of the intestinal wall through endoscopy or exploratory surgery. Both of these procedures are expensive, and have different advantages and disadvantages in a pet.

Recovery from endoscopy is quick, but if any growths are found, they can not be removed and more tests are necessary. Exploratory surgery requires a longer recovery period (a few days), but any abnormalities that are discovered can be dealt with immediately. Once the biopsy is obtained through either method it can be sent off to a laboratory for testing.

How is IBD Treated in Cats and Dogs?


Treatment for IBD may be initiated with some trial diets, and move on to medications if symptoms aren't alleviated.

For several months a pet may be tried on a hypoallergenic diet. In humans this type of diet is often called "lamb and pear" because these are two types of foods that are not commonly eaten. Eating from different food sources may provide clues to determine which foods eaten on a daily basis are causing allergies.

It's the same with animals. They will be put on a diet consisting of a protein source that they may not have been exposed to before such as duck, venison, or rabbit.

A change in diet may also involve a reduction in fat intake and increase in fiber. Even cats and dogs need a certain amount of fat in their diets, but too much may contribute to nausea or interact with bacteria in the intestine. Insoluble fiber increases the bulk of stool, and keeps it moving through the intestines at a consistent pace.


Corticosteroids, mesalamine, sulfasalazine, Metronidazole, immunosuppressives and antidiarrheals may all be used to treat IBD in cats and dogs.

In cats with IBD, corticosteroids such as prednisone are often used. The cat will start out at a high dose given every other day, and gradually taper off the drug as she feels better. Some cats may need to be on maintenance therapy of steroids for the rest of their lives.

Unlike humans, cats do not exhibit the notorious side effects for which prednisone is famous.

In dogs, sulfasalazine and mesalamine are most frequently used to treat IBD. Unfortunately these drugs can cause a secondary condition known as called keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), or dry eye. KCS is an irreversible condition where the amount of tears is reduced.

Close supervision is necessary for cats using these medications because the salicylates in them can be toxic.

Metronidazole and immunosuppressives may be used in tandem with other drugs, or when other forms of therapy fail. These drugs suppress the immune system, and close supervision of the animal is necessary.

Antidiarrheals such as Imodium may help with diarrhea, but these drugs do not reduce the inflammation in the intestines.

What Is the Prognosis?

When dietary therapy is successful, the pet will need to be kept on that diet for the rest of their lives. Other pets will respond to medical therapy. Just as with humans, the severity of IBD will vary from animal to animal, as will the best form of treatment. Medications and other treatments that are being developed for humans may carry over to be useful for treating our furry counterparts.

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