Few diagnoses are as confusing as feline inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Here’s how I explained it to a reader with questions.
Q: My vet thinks my cat has inflammatory bowel disease. Why doesn’t she know for sure, and what can you tell me about it?
A: IBD, as it’s known for short, is one of those diseases that’s difficult to diagnose, because the signs — vomiting, diarrhea, changes in appetite, weight loss, drinking more water and urinating more frequently — are commonly seen in other diseases as well. And those signs may come and go for no apparent reason.
There’s not a simple test your vet can give and say “Yes, your cat definitely has IBD.” It’s more of a process of elimination — ruling out all the other possibilities. That can involve testing for parasites and foreign bodies, changing the diet to see if the cat has food allergies or intolerances, checking fecal samples for bacterial infections, ultrasound to look for thickening of intestinal walls or enlarged lymph nodes, and bloodwork and biopsies.
The goal of treatment is to reduce the inflammation causing your cat’s discomfort, restock the gut with healthy “bugs,” and possibly to suppress an overactive immune system. Depending on the signs, that might mean changing the food to something highly digestible and low in fat; adding certain vitamins, prebiotics, probiotics or other supplements; prescribing a broad-spectrum antibiotic; or giving a course of corticosteroids to help calm the immune system and reduce inflammation. Corticosteroids can predispose cats to developing insulin resistance or diabetes, so careful monitoring is important.
Once the diagnosis is made and treatment begins, your cat may have a good prognosis. A lot depends on how far along the disease is by the time it’s diagnosed, how compliant the cat is about receiving medication and how well the body responds to treatment. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about possible side effects to watch for.
There’s more – including how they’re training dogs to detect COVID – in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.