Vet Expert ADVICE On IBD In Cats

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What is IBD in Cats?

IBD in cats is a syndrome that occurs due to chronic irritation of the gastrointestinal tract. The abbreviation IBD stands for inflammatory bowel disease. 

IBD results in an overreaction from the immune system that releases inflammatory mediators. The inflammation alters the gastrointestinal tract’s structure and impairs its ability to function optimally. 

IBD can affect any cat age group, but most cases occur in middle-aged or geriatric cats. 

Cat portrait

Feline IBD Symptoms and Diagnosis

IBD presents clinicians and owners with a frustrating clinical picture. The disease process starts with non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms, but their chronicity or recurrence provides a red flag that warrants further investigation. 

Symptoms of IBD in Cats

Owners must monitor their cats to see if they suffer from frequent gastrointestinal (GI) upsets and discuss this with the attending vet at each visit. The symptoms of IBD in cats vary depending on the affected part of the GI tract.  

IBD presents various symptoms: 

  • Generalized symptoms include poor coat quality, weight loss, abdominal pain, increased gut sounds, lethargy, decreased appetite, or a ravenous appetite.
  • Upper GI tract symptoms include chronic intermittent vomiting and frequent hairball regurgitation.
  • Lower GI tract symptoms include diarrhea, bloody stools, and flatulence.

IBD in cats sometimes presents with symptoms that mimic other conditions, such as liver disease, renal insufficiency, hyperthyroidism, and intestinal lymphoma.

Diagnosing Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats

Veterinarians that frequently see the same patient present with GI symptoms must first rule out the common causes of an inflamed gut lining before considering IBD as a possible diagnosis. 

A vet must request a complete clinical history of the patient’s diet trials, symptom frequency, and duration. Additional basic tests initially include a complete blood count, fecal flotation, wet fecal preparation, a biochemistry blood panel, and urine analysis.

More advanced diagnostic blood tests may include measuring vitamin B12 (cobalamin) levels or folate in the bloodstream to indicate a nutrient absorption deficiency or dysbacteriosis of gut microbes, respectively.

Ultrasound imaging allows clinicians to measure the thickness of the stomach, intestinal walls, and mesenteric lymph nodes. With that information, vets can then determine where the inflammation lies and decide if an endoscopic biopsy is possible or if a full exploratory laparotomy will be needed to acquire full-thickness samples of the affected area. 

The attending vet will send the biopsy to a veterinary pathologist for a full description and diagnosis of the affected area. Clinicians determine the type of IBD according to the predominant type of inflammatory cells found in the sample.

Depending on where the inflammation occurs, IBD can present as either gastritis, enteritis, or colitis. Plasma cells and lymphocytes cause lymphocytic plasmacytic enteritis, whereas eosinophils cause eosinophilic gastritis. Other IBD forms are less common, including neutrophilic IBD and granulomatous IBD. 

Once a clinician makes a diagnosis, they can formulate a treatment plan to help alleviate the patient’s symptoms.

The Causes of IBD in Cats

Many vets and owners are left wondering what causes IBD in cats. The cause is unknown, but some research suggests connections to complex, abnormal immune system reactions to several factors, including infections, parasites, allergies, nutrition, environmental triggers, and individual bacterial gut microbiomes. 

Some genetic abnormalities or inherited disorders may predispose cats to IBD.

Available Treatment Options

The treatment for IBD in cats focuses on a multimodal approach to manage symptoms and avoid triggering flare-ups. 

Dietary management forms the cornerstone of any treatment plan for IBD. If food sensitivity is the suspected underlying cause of inflammation, the attending vet may recommend a hypoallergenic food trial. Hypoallergenic diets include novel protein and carbohydrate sources, so cats are less likely to mount an allergy response. 

Hypoallergenic diets include protein sources such as venison, duck, turkey, or rabbit. Some cats are allergic to grain; in that case, vets may suggest a grain-free diet. Cats are carnivores and require specific amino acids such as taurine to stay healthy, so always consult a vet or nutritionist before changing an IBD cat’s diet.

Medical management of IBD starts with a broad-spectrum dewormer to eliminate all potential GI parasites. Cats with positive fecal samples might require treating intestinal parasites such as worms, coccidia, or giardia.

Medications for IBD in cats depend on the cause of the condition. The primary purpose of the medicines is inflammation regulation. 

Immunosuppressive drugs regulate the immune system’s overreaction and decrease inflammatory mediators. Corticosteroids are well tolerated by cats and offer a cost-effective option to help reduce inflammation. If corticosteroids prove ineffective, vets move on to more potent immunosuppressive medications such as chlorambucil or azathioprine.

Side effects of chlorambucil or azathioprine include bone marrow suppression, so vets must closely monitor patients for any signs of decreased production of white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets.

For owners to best manage IBD in cats, treatment protocols require strict dietary and medical prescription compliance. 

Cat sleeping

Is IBD in Cats Painful?

Cats with IBD often show signs of depression and lethargy, which sometimes makes owners wonder if their cat is also in pain. IBD is an inflammatory condition, meaning cats show symptoms of abdominal discomfort, cramping, nausea, and possible dermatitis from chronic diarrhea.

If the symptoms of IBD are well managed, owners can avoid discomfort for their cats.

IBD in Cats – The Prognosis

The prognosis for cats with IBD depends not only on the severity and the chronicity of the syndrome but also on the treatment compliance of the owner. Cats lead happy and comfortable lives with proper symptom management and vigilant monitoring. 

If owners want to secure a positive long-term outcome for IBD in cats, prognosis variables need serious consideration. Regular vet visits and strict adherence to medical and dietary treatments ensure that the disease remains manageable. 

Flare-ups, inappropriate foods, irregular medication administration, and chronic high doses of steroids decrease the success rate of IBD management. Chronic intestinal inflammation paves the road for aberrant cell division and increases the risk of intestinal cancers such as lymphoma, which carries a very poor prognosis.

Corticosteroids and Feline Side Effects

Corticosteroids cause several side effects, including increased thirst, hunger, and urination. The chronic usage of steroids affects the liver, suppresses the immune system, and predisposes some cats to diabetes. 

Most cats tolerate steroids well when placed on the lowest effective dose. Regular vet visits must occur to monitor any potential side effects closely. 

Corticosteroid medications include tablets, syrups, or long-acting injectable formulations.

Will My Cat Have to Take Steroids for the Rest of Their Life?

Corticosteroid therapy is initially used for the first few months on a tapering dose to achieve the lowest effective dose. If a cat’s immune system is down-regulated successfully, the vet will taper the medication dosage down until it is no longer needed. 

If the cat’s symptoms recur, the cat must remain on the lowest effective dose of medication chronically if they are not experiencing adverse effects. 

Other Anti-Inflammatory Drugs to Treat Feline IBD

Metronidazole is an antibiotic that boasts anti-inflammatory and anti-protozoal properties. A side effect of metronidazole includes loss of appetite. The medication has a bad taste which makes administration to cats very difficult. Sometimes they develop a taste aversion and possible aversion associated with nausea and vomiting.

Natural Remedies for IBD in Cats

Due to the frustrating nature of IBD, many owners seek more natural and cost-effective remedies for their cats. There are some options for owners to explore that show some promising results. 

Prebiotics and Probiotics

The GI tract requires a balanced and healthy population of microbes to digest food and absorb nutrients. 

Prebiotics are a nutraceutical that promotes the growth of healthy gut microbes and maintains their population. Probiotics are strains of beneficial bacteria that support and improve GI function. Most prescription foods contain one or both to help provide a healthy gut microbiome for cats with IBD.


Some forms of acupuncture offer anti-inflammatory benefits through autonomic neuromodulation. A veterinary physiotherapist is the best person to approach if an owner considers their cat a good candidate for acupuncture therapy.

Nutritional Supplements

Research on IBD in cats shows that certain supplements offer various benefits to help alleviate clinical symptoms.

  • Owners can feed psyllium, a soluble fiber that boasts many benefits for cats with IBD colitis. 
  • Cats with IBD have a decreased ability to absorb folate or Vitamin B12, so some vets advise supplementation.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils reduce inflammation and protect the gut wall. 
  • Glutamine lowers the recurrence of colitis by down-regulating pro-inflammatory gene expression and activation.
  • Curcumin is a turmeric compound that decreases lipid oxidation, tissue injury, and inflammatory cytokines.

Dietary Management

The best cat food for Irritable Bowel Disease is a highly digestible, low-fat, high-fiber food with a novel protein source. The key to a food trial is that an owner needs to exclusively only feed the prescribed food. Owners must eliminate all treats and snacks to ensure they do not compromise the results. 

Owners may only see results from a food trial after eight to twelve weeks, so it is imperative to stick to the prescribed cat food for IBD. Read our article and find out about Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Dogs.

Is There a Cure?

Feline IBD has no cure, so the main objective is to control the symptoms by strictly complying with nutritional and medical instructions so that cats with IBD continue to live comfortably and contently.

Flare-ups or relapses require immediate veterinary attention to determine if medications or treatments need adjustments or alterations. 

Bored cat


IBD in cats presents owners and vets with many frustrations, but with dedication and diligence, a cat can go on to live a happy and comfortable life with a few special needs. The best way an owner can provide their IBD cat with the highest level of care is a combination of regular vet visits, close patient monitoring, and medical and dietary management.