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Me-Ow! Inflammatory Bowel Disease Can Affect Cats

Pet Column for the week of July 13, 2009

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Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
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Source - Dr. Julie K. Byron
Humans are not the only animals diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 1.4 million Americans suffer from ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, two specific disorders that fall under the umbrella term of IBD. Although it is hard to keep statistics on how many of our feline companions have the disease (dogs can be affected as well), it is not an uncommon diagnosis.

Dr. Julie Byron is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. She explains that, "IBD is a chronic disease that develops over weeks to months." In fact, according to the World Small Animal Veterinary Associations' GI standardization group, one of the symptoms an animal must show to meet the criteria for an IBD diagnosis is gastrointestinal upset for more than three weeks.

"Owners may notice signs such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, weight loss, and a decreased appetite," says Dr. Byron. This is because inside the cat's intestines an inflammatory process is eroding the mucosal barrier of the intestinal wall. In short, the body begins to inappropriately attack the antigens present in the gut, destroying the normal architecture and absorption processes. Although not exactly the same, it's similar to what happens during an allergic reaction.

Since nausea, vomiting, and weight loss could be symptoms of many other diseases, the only definitive way to diagnose IBD is with a biopsy of the gut. "We really need to have a full thickness biopsy in cats," notes Dr. Byron, "otherwise we cannot differentiate IBD from lymphoma, or a carcinoma, which would require different treatment."

If a cat cannot go under anesthesia for surgery to get a biopsy, either because the cat is not in good health or the owner chooses not to pursue the option, a veterinarian may presumptively treat the cat as having IBD. In such a case, treatment could include many different steps.

For starters, many cats with IBD respond to a special novel protein diet prescribed by your veterinarian. But owners must remember that it may take several weeks to see an effect, and absolutely no table scraps or treats can be fed outside of the special diet. Steroids are another option that can be tried if the cat still is having severe symptoms. By suppressing the immune system, you should be able to curb clinical signs as well.

Other tools to treat IBD include the use of probiotics, cobalamin (since low values are commonly seen in IBD cats), an antimicrobial drug, and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) commonly found in fish oils.

Thankfully, Dr. Byron notes that, "in the vast majority of patients we can get them comfortable with a good quality of life." It is also worth mentioning that an IBD diagnosis doesn't necessarily shorten your feline companion's lifespan. Since the clinical signs of the disease can be confused with other, more life-threatening illnesses, don't hesitate to contact your veterinarian at the first sign of trouble.