Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs and Cats

Inflammatory bowel disease (aka IBD) is a disorder of dogs and cats where inflammatory cells (types of white blood cells within the blood) abnormally infiltrate the stomach and intestines, causing abnormal digestion of food. In cats, the disease can be part of a serious complex that also affects the liver and pancreas.

IBD is one of the most common causes of chronic vomiting and diarrhea in both dogs and cats. Other signs of IBD can include gradual weight loss, a dull hair coat, lethargy, hiding, and a decreased or increased appetite. Your veterinarian at Encina Veterinary Hospital may pick up on other signs during a physical exam, such as thickened gut loops and enlarged abdominal lymph nodes.

The exact cause or root of IBD is still not known; it is thought to be caused by a variety of triggers. These include intolerance to certain diets, gastrointestinal parasites and bacteria, and an individual’s genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, the exact trigger is usually not found, so the cause is labeled as “idiopathic” or unknown.

Diagnosing IBD is somewhat more complicated than other conditions. IBD cannot be diagnosed by a blood test and the only way to confirm IBD is to collect samples of tissue from inside the stomach, intestines, and colon. Once these samples are collected, they are sent off to the lab for analysis to see if signs of inflammatory infiltration are present. Samples are collected by either endoscopy (where a tiny camera is passed through the mouth and colon using a thin and flexible tube) or via exploratory surgery. Before these advanced tests are performed, your veterinarian will typically recommend a variety of less complex tests to rule out other causes of chronic vomiting and diarrhea first. These tests may include comprehensive blood, urine, and fecal tests and/or an abdominal ultrasound.

As a chronic illness, pets diagnosed with IBD will require regular rechecks with your veterinarian as well as emotional and financial investment in order to manage. Treatments for this condition may be life long, treatments are aimed at making your dog or cat feel better, and treatments are usually performed in a step-wise fashion. Your veterinarian may first recommend starting oral antibiotics and dewormers, as well as starting a strict prescription diet for several weeks to rule out bacterial, parasitic, and dietary triggers. In the rare case, your pet may feel better with these treatments alone. Most cases require additional treatments with anti-inflammatories. Starting these anti-inflammatories can actually hinder the diagnosis of IBD and is usually not recommended until biopsies are collected or your veterinarian has a very strong suspicion that IBD is present. Your veterinarian will work with you to help find the right combination of medications and treatments that will make your pet feel better.

If left untreated, IBD can be a serious disease which can lead to severe weight loss, decreased appetite, depression, and a poor quality of life. In rare cases in cats, IBD can actually lead to intestinal lymphoma, which is a type of cancer.

While IBD is a complicated and chronic disease process affecting many dogs and cats that requires veterinary care in order to diagnose and treat, this is a manageable condition. Your veterinarian is the best person to help formulate a plan that will make your dog or cat feel better and improve the quality of their life.

Erica Chiu DVM