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What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Cats?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in cats is typically an acute (severe and sudden) onset episode of gastrointestinal distress.

Episodes of IBS in cats often occur in response to a stressful event, an intolerance or allergy to some component of the cat’s diet, or a change in the normal function of the colon.  

What Is the Difference Between IBS and IBD in Cats? 

While IBS in cats is severe and sudden inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) in cats is a syndrome characterized by chronic (long-term) inflammation of the mucosal lining of the intestinal tract.

IBD is usually the result of an underlying disease process such as a bacterial imbalance, food allergies or intolerances, or other genetic factors.

Definitive diagnosis of IBD requires biopsies of the stomach and intestinal tract via laparotomy (exploratory surgery) or endoscopy (investigation with a long, flexible tube).  

Cats with IBD typically have thickened intestinal walls due to the chronic inflammatory response. Cats with IBS typically have normal biopsy results.

Symptoms of IBS in Cats

The most common symptoms of IBS in cats include: 

  • Diarrhea, which might be accompanied by mucus

  • Dyschezia (painful pooping)

  • Abdominal bloating/gas

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting 

Cats may also experience: 

  • Lethargy

  • Loss of appetite

  • Gradual weight loss with persistent stress 

The episodes of IBS may be frequent, severe, or poorly managed.

Causes of IBS in Cats

While a definitive cause of IBS in cats is unclear, IBS typically occurs in response to a stressful event, such as:

  • Travel 

  • Boarding 

  • Hospitalization 

  • Trauma/injury

  • Alteration of the cat’s daily routine or living environment (new home, new baby, new pet) 

IBS can also come from a dietary intolerance or allergy, or a change in the normal function of the bowel.

How Vets Diagnose IBS in Cats

Your vet will do a physical examination, review your cat’s medical history, and ask about any recent potential stressors when diagnosing your cat with IBS. 

IBS is often a diagnosis of exclusion, so diagnostic tests, including CBC/blood chemistry, a fecal exam, urinalysis, serologic testing (FeLV/FIV), abdominal X-ray and/or ultrasound, may be ordered to eliminate other conditions.  

The veterinarian might also recommend intestinal biopsies to rule out other inflammatory, fungal, or neoplastic (abnormal cell growth) conditions.  

Cats with IBS may show increased spasticity (muscle stiffening) of the colon and more mucus inside the colon if a colonoscopy is performed. 

However, biopsies of the stomach and intestinal tissues are usually normal in cats with IBS.

Stopping the diarrhea and abdominal pain are key treatment goals for cats with IBS.  

To help your cat, your vet may administer: 

  • Intravenous fluids to restore hydration

  • Antidiarrheal medications 

  • Stool softener to resolve constipation

  • Antispasmodics to control colon spasms 

In severe cases of IBS, some cats may benefit from a short course of corticosteroids (prednisolone), antibiotics, and pre/probiotics to help relieve their symptoms.

Dietary management, stress management, and medical intervention are important long-term components for your cat’s recovery from IBS. 

Feeding Cats With IBS

Cats with IBS should be offered an easy-to-digest, high-fiber, low-fat diet to restore normal gut health and promote the return of normal, healthy stools, such as:

You can supplement your cat’s diet with probiotics to maintain a healthy bacterial flora in the gut. 

Diet Elimination Trial

Cats with a suspected dietary intolerance may also benefit from a diet elimination trial, which means placing your cat on a diet of a new protein they have never tried before.  

Specific protein intolerances may be identified with an elimination diet, although you will need to monitor your cat for several weeks to see improvement in your cat’s overall physical condition and gastrointestinal health.  

Managing Stress

Stress management is also critical for your cat to avoid recurrent bouts of IBS.  

Medications that help with anxiety, along with calming collars, sprays or diffusers, and probiotic supplements added to the diet before or after the stressful event may lessen the severity and duration of your cat’s stress.

Lifestyle management should focus on eliminating or minimizing stressors in your cat’s daily routine. Support your cat before stressful events, such as travel, boarding, or visits from family and friends, to help minimize your cat’s stress response.  

Also make sure that your cat with IBS has a nutritionally appropriate life-stage diet, regular human interaction, and daily exercise. These lifestyle elements are vital to promoting your cat’s mental health and well-being.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Cats FAQs

What can I feed a cat with irritable bowel syndrome?

Cats with IBS often respond and improve after transitioning to a hypoallergenic diet with a new protein if a dietary intolerance is suspected. 

Easy-to-digest, high-fiber, low-fat diets (Hill’s w/d) have also been shown to improve overall digestive health and alleviate the constipation, excess gas, and diarrhea associated with IBS in cats: 

Adding a probiotic supplement to the diet can also promote a return to and maintenance of good gut bacteria.

References

Craven, M., BVetMed, PhD, DSAM, DECVIM-CA, MRCVS. (n.d.). Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Does It Exist? The World Small Animal Veterinary Association. https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=12886&catId=57099&id=7054775

Ettinger, S. J., & Feldman, E. G. (1994). Diseases of the Large Intestine. In Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine (pp. 1250–1251). WB Saunders Co.

Sherding, R. G. (1994). Diseases of the Intestines. In Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice (p. 710). American Animal Hospital Association.

Tiller, Jr, L., & Smith, F. W. K. (1999). Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In Blackwell’s 5 Minute Veterinary Consult – Canine and Feline (pp. 746–747). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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