Does your cat have Inflammatory bowel disease?

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a fairly common condition in cats - yet it is also one of the hardest to diagnose and even today feline IBD is relatively poorly understood. As the name says, the main characteristic of the disease is inflammation in the digestive system, especially in the bowels. However, the onset of the problem can be subtle and as a result the problem can last for months, or even years before it is properly diagnosed and treated.

So what causes IBD? The problem begins when the cat's body starts producing certain types of cells (usually these are either lymphocytes and plasmocytes though other cells such as eosinophils or neutrophils can be involved as well). While the specific trigger of each particular case of IBD will probably never be known, that trigger, be it genetic predisposition, allergy or infection causes a defective immune response in the cat's body. The cells which usually fight an infection end up in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, and just as joints in a human or cat can become swollen or inflamed by arthritis, the bowels of the cat become inflamed in IBD.

Again, as with other types of flawed immune responses, over time the inflammation causes damage. Because both the bowels and the stomach absorb nutrients from food and pass food through the system, once the gastrointestinal tract is damaged, the cat becomes less efficient at processing food. So the symptoms of IBD are what you would expect of a malfunctioning digestive system - weight loss, frequent diarrhea and vomiting. However, IBD affects different cats differently (another thing which makes it so hard to diagnose), and some cats lose their appetites and become lethargic, while others remain active or even become voraciously hungry.

Another problem in diagnosing IBD is that the usual symptoms of weight loss, diarrhea or vomiting can be the effect of a wide range of maladies including allergies, metabolic diseases, bacterial/fungal infections or even cancer. Even when IBD is suspected the number of different cells which can cause the problem make a medical diagnosis more tricky. Nor does it help that the onset of the disease is insidiously subtle. Just as with humans, loose bowels or occasional vomiting can be produced by a number of causes, and many of these are both minor and soon gone. So early IBD is often mistaken for a bad case of hairballs, or a stomach upset resulting from something the cat ate in the garden. Itís only as the disease progresses over weeks or months and the symptoms grow more pronounced, that humans start to worry and take the cat for a medical examination.

(By the way it is not normal for a cat to vomit hairballs more often than once a month - if that. Many cats very rarely vomit them up, because although hair is indigestible, it is usually passed completely through the intestinal tract. So frequent vomiting, even if it looks like 'just furballs' should be checked by a vet.)

To reach a diagnosis of IBD the vet must first eliminate other possible causes of the symptoms. Blood, urine and feces are examined and bacterial and fungal cultures are developed. X-rays of the chest and abdomen or if possible an ultrasound may first be done to eliminate the chance that the cat is suffering from a metabolic disorder such as liver, kidney or thyroid problems or an infectious disease. If these tests fail to locate the problem then it may well be an inflamed bowel. But not all bowel inflammations are IBD. To make absolutely sure of the diagnosis endoscopy (a visual inspection of the colon) or even surgery may be required. A tissue sample (biopsy) will reveal the type of cells involved and the severity of the IBD and this will help the vet to decide on the best treatment.

The first line of attack against the disease is an appropriate diet. If the gastro-intestinal tract is in trouble, the ideal food is that which yields the maximum nourishment for minimal effort. This means that food should be easily digestible, and preferably with a single source of protein.Chicken or rabbit are both good. These foods are more completely absorbed and this will also help to stabilise diarrhea. If you are unable to lay hands on rabbits or chickens, your vet will probably be able to recommend a commercial food for IBD cats. If the disease is advanced, medication will be needed as well, most often corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The vet might also prescribe medication to prevent diarrhea and nausea.

All these measures can help, and sometimes they can bring about a dramatic improvement, turning a listless, skinny cat back into a bright-eyed, lively companion. It's rare that proper diet and medication can't turn the disease around to some extent, but while the disease can be treated, sometimes very effectively, this does not constitute a cure. You might need to manage flare-ups, and will want the vet to check on your catís progress three or four times a year. However, proper feeding and care may well mean that your cat and you will enjoy many more happy years together.


Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

 
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