Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease


Far too many cat parents accept occasional or even chronic vomiting and diarrhea as a fact of life with cats.  “He just eats too fast.” “She has a sensitive stomach.” “It’s just a hairball.” The truth is that chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea can be an indicator of serious diseases of the small intestine, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and intestinal lymphoma.

What is IBD?

IBD is not a single disease, but rather a group of chronic gastrointestinal disorders caused by inflammation. Inflammatory cells invade the walls of the GI tract, leading to thickening of the walls and disrupting proper GI function. The location of the inflammation can help determine the specific type of IBD. IBD is more common in middle-aged and older cats, but can affect cats at any age.

What causes IBD?

Chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract can be the result of a specific disease, such as a parasitic or bacterial infection. It can also be caused by a food intolerance or food allergy. However, in many cases, it’s impossible to determine the cause of IBD. According to the Cornell Health Center, current theories suggest that these “idiopathic” cases of IBD may be due to a breakdown in the relationship between the normal bacteria that reside in the gastrointestinal tract and the immune system of the GI wall.

Symptoms of IBD

Symptoms most typically include chronic vomiting and diarrhea, but sometimes, constipation can also be a problem. Some cats present with weight loss as the only clinical sign.

Diagnosis of IBD

To rule out other causes of gastrointestinal problems, your veterinarian will perform diagnostic tests that may include complete blood cell counts, blood chemistry, thyroid function tests, urinalysis, fecal analysis, abdominal x-rays, and ultrasound. The only definitive way to diagnose IBD is through biopsies of small samples of the intestinal lining. Unfortunately, many veterinarians will use endoscopy to obtain these biopsies, which, while less invasive than surgical biopsy, will not always reach the abnormal sections of the intestine.

Medical Treatment

IBD is usually treated with a combination of medical and dietary therapy.  Corticosteroids are used for their anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant properties, and they can also serve as an appetite stimulant.  However, steroid therapy carries serious longterm side-effects.

The Diet Connection

Since food allergies may play a role in causing IBD, a food elimination trial may be recommended. There are currently two approaches for these trials: a hypoallergenic diet, or a novel protein diet. Hypoallergenic “prescription” diets are made from hydrolyzed proteins, using a conventional protein source like chicken, but the protein is broken down into molecules too small to stimulate the immune system. Novel protein diets must contain a protein that the cat has not previously been exposed to. Unfortunately, with pet food manufacturers coming up with ever more exotic diets, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a truly novel protein.

Holistically oriented veterinarians have long seen a connection between diet and IBD. These vets believe that commercial pet foods, especially dry foods, are a contributing factor to the large numbers of cats with chronic IBD. They also discovered that many cats improve by simply changing their diets to a balanced grain-free raw meat diet. While results may be achieved with a grain-free canned diet, a raw diet seems to lead to quicker and better results.


The good news is that intestinal disease is very treatable. There is mounting evidence that treating the disease in its early stages will likely prevent a progression to intestinal lymphoma. For most cats, this disease will be chronic, and ongoing monitoring by both cat parents and their veterinarian is critical to successful management.

My personal experience with IBD

My first cat, Feebee, was diagnosed with IBD at around age 12. He was treated with corticosteroids and a high-fiber diet (this was long before I became educated about feline nutrition, and just the thought of it makes me cringe now!) His IBD eventually progressed to intestinal lymphoma, and I elected to do chemotherapy. He did extremely well for another seven months, then he rapidly declined and died at age 15 1/2. I can’t help but wonder, had I known then what I know now about nutrition, whether he would never have developed IBD in the first place.

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26 Comments on Feline Inflammatory Bowel Disease

  1. Hilda Holt
    June 10, 2017 at 11:19 pm (1 month ago)

    I am enjoying reading about this IBD because I think my cat may have it. I have had her to the vets several times but I never got any information about what the vet thought her problem was. I feel helpless in knwing wha to try next. Thanks for the info.

    • Ingrid
      June 11, 2017 at 5:34 am (1 month ago)

      It sounds like you may need to look for another vet who communicates better with his clients, Hilda.

  2. Janine
    May 22, 2017 at 11:13 am (2 months ago)

    I have a 2 year old with IBD. Process of elimination for sure. LID diet and b12 injections have helped improve although not 100% eliminated yet.

    • Cheryl
      May 22, 2017 at 10:13 pm (2 months ago)

      I’m so happy for you that it is helping so early. I’m sure they have new treatments all the time. Good luck

  3. nelda
    May 15, 2017 at 10:03 pm (2 months ago)

    So I solved my IDB problem by very carefully studying the ingredients on the food that I purchased. The ingredients I found to avoid include
    Xantham Gum and
    The grains, corn, wheat, and soy all contain GMOs when used in animal food. I argue that Xantham Gum also is a grain (and also GMOed) since it is derived from corn, yet many times products marketed as grain free contain it. I had to go one step further though and eliminate chicken from my IBD girl’s diet as well unless I knew that it was free range, natural fed chicken. (Chickens by the way do not eat grains as part of their natural diet so beware when poultry manufacturers advertise their chickens are fed a 100% vegetarian all grain diet. That is not the natural diet of chickens. Bugs are the natural diet of chickens just like bugs and some seeds are the natural diet of birds.)

    I cooked her raw for a while as well (since she wouldn’t eat it raw) but still had trouble even though Darwins assured me that the chicken in their raw was free range and natural fed.

    I’ve found that even after eliminating the corn wheat soy, that the carrageenan is the worst on her. So even if I feed her something that is labeled grain free and it contains carrageenan, it really causes a major crisis.

    So avoid carrageenan at all cost.

    And yes it is a lifetime of monitoring her food but the rest of the gang benefits as well as I would never have learned all this had it not been for her being sick. And BTW – avoiding those same ingredients is a healthy step for humans as well. If I’m not willing to feed it to my cat, I’m not willing to eat it myself! 😉

    • Ingrid
      May 16, 2017 at 5:20 am (2 months ago)

      Your story illustrates how frustrating it can be to treat IBD, and that it sometimes takes detective work to find a solution. What works for one cat may not work for another.

      Carrageenan is a controversial ingredient in cat food (and human food, for that matter), and I recommend steering clear of it even for healthy cats. There are some studies that have shown that carrageenan leads to higher rates of colon cancer in lab animals. Here’s more information: http://consciouscat.net/2012/06/08/carrageenan-should-it-be-in-your-cats-food/ Some pet food manufacturers are starting to replace carrageenan with other binders.

  4. Cheryl
    May 15, 2017 at 11:41 am (2 months ago)

    My beautiful boy was diagnosed at about 6 yrs of age. I now feel the vet did far too many tests on him and finally did the biopsy which confirmed he had IBD. He was put on a high dose of prednisone. After several years I changed vets and the new vet tried to ween him off prednisone until we were down to 1/4 tablet. That worked for a while and then the vomiting started again. My dear boy’s personality changed somewhat and finally he lost his sight. After visiting a specialist it was determined that he had a brain tumour and left me a few months later. I can’t help but feel the prednisone was a determining factor.

    • Ingrid
      May 15, 2017 at 4:21 pm (2 months ago)

      I’m so sorry, Cheryl.

      • Cheryl
        May 15, 2017 at 7:10 pm (2 months ago)


  5. Janine
    May 15, 2017 at 8:47 am (2 months ago)

    Thank you for writing this post. It is very helpful.

  6. Debbie
    May 15, 2017 at 8:45 am (2 months ago)

    My cat has had IBD for years n was on prednisone for yrs until we had to ween her off due to it can cause bone loss. I mainly feed her smaller portion at a time n canned food but no fish products. This seems to have helped her very well. Every now n then she gets a little dry food. She is now about 15 yrs old n doing good. Some canned products foods don’t agree so I have finally found two products that works for her.

    • CAThy
      May 17, 2017 at 5:48 pm (2 months ago)

      Having lost one sweet boy to IBD to Lymphoma, I’d appreciate the names of the 2 foods your girl is doing well on to try w/my latest rescue.

  7. Sue Brandes
    May 15, 2017 at 8:36 am (2 months ago)

    Thank you for the post.

  8. Patty
    May 15, 2017 at 8:27 am (2 months ago)

    My cat, Mary Read, is fed a raw food diet and still vomits on average about twice a month. After trying several different things, an endoscopy was done and some inflammation was found. The recommendation was steroids, which we decided not to do. I’ve been trying to manage it with probiotics, bone broth, and Omega 3. It’s very frustrating because trying something new seems to help in the beginning, but then she’s back to vomiting every two weeks.

    • Mary
      June 22, 2017 at 8:52 pm (1 month ago)

      I wonder if essential oils would help? There is ano essential oil vet on facebook Dr. Janet Roark is very nice. My 12 year old guy is believed to have ibs by the vet and I want to treat naturally like you..I hope you can get good lasting results. I was thinking one of my essential oils may help kill parasites which can be a cause of ibs also. It also helps digestion. I started using it but have to now add in bone broth and find a good food. How do you make your bone broth for your cat and get him/her to eat it?

        • Mary
          June 24, 2017 at 12:58 am (4 weeks ago)

          This is true. Do you know of any other natural ways to treat parasites by chance? I read diamotacous earth but am leary of it causing constipation for my cat that gets occ. Constipation. I do hope to get in with a vet that does some holistic medical care.

          • Ingrid
            June 24, 2017 at 5:23 am (4 weeks ago)

            I don’t know of any effective ways to treat internal parasites with natural remedies.

      • Patty
        June 23, 2017 at 7:10 am (4 weeks ago)

        Hi Mary,

        I received this bone broth recipe from the very helpful folks at raw essentials. They’re in New Zealand. I wish they imported their raw pet food to the US.

        Fill a slow cooker with chicken frames and wings.
        Cover with water.
        Add 1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar.
        Cook in high for 2hrs.
        Then turn to simmer on low for a further 22hrs.
        Strain the liquid into containers.
        Keep 3 days worth in the fridge and freeze the rest.
        Discard the solid matter.

        The broth is really great for upset tummies, poaching a bit of muscle meat in it when there has been an upset can be very soothing.

        • Mary
          June 24, 2017 at 12:55 am (4 weeks ago)

          Thank you so much! That sounds like an easy way to make it.

  9. Holly
    May 15, 2017 at 5:35 am (2 months ago)

    If it makes you feel any better we did know about good nutrition with our Cat Saxton we started him out on raw diet when we got him at 6 weeks of age.
    Still diagnosed with IBD.
    The traditional vet blamed the raw diet. Saxton is now 6 years old and we see both holistic and traditional vet
    We manage with Acupuncture, supplements and yes a RAW diet;) Maybe its in the genetics too?

    • Mary
      June 24, 2017 at 12:56 am (4 weeks ago)

      What supplements do you use for your kitty?

  10. Jean McCormic
    May 15, 2017 at 1:17 am (2 months ago)

    My 15 yr. old Tabby, Karma, has recently begun pooping in different places in the house. She currently shares a litter box with my other cat. My son cleans the box daily. I suggested getting another litter box. What do you think of this new, odd behavior?

    • Ingrid
      May 15, 2017 at 5:10 am (2 months ago)

      While a second litter box may help (some cats don’t like separate boxes for peeing and pooping), anytime a cat eliminates outside the box, the first thing to do is to rule out any medical issues. I’d take your cat to your vet as soon as possible.

      • Jean McCormic
        May 15, 2017 at 5:13 am (2 months ago)

        Thank you for your suggestion. I had considered taking her in, but wasn’t sure.

        • Jean McCormic
          June 5, 2017 at 2:01 am (2 months ago)

          Now, there is blood in her poop. To the vet tomorrow!


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