Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats

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Amy Marder, V.M.D.

Elizabeth is a beautiful one-year-old cat. But although she is now the picture of health, it hasn’t always been that way.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats


Elizabeth came to The ASPCA when she was 10 months old, along with her litter of five-week-old kittens. Patricia Jones, director of media relations at The “A,” offered to foster the feline family in her office – a not uncommon practice when animals need special care before they can be placed for adoption.

Elizabeth was very thin and was plagued with severe, foul-smelling diarrhea. With treatment, the diarrhea improved but did not disappear. This concerned Patricia, but what alarmed her more was the cat’s voracious appetite. If anyone in the office left their lunch unattended, Elizabeth devoured it in seconds.

Patricia assumed that Elizabeth’s appetite was a combination of being a nursing mother and having been a stray. She felt that the cat just needed time to feel secure. But even when her kittens were weaned, Elizabeth’s appetite remained enormous. Her diarrhea had returned with vigor, as well. Patricia took Elizabeth home to see if a more consistent environment would help.

It didn’t. No matter how much dry and canned food was in her bowl, “Ms. Voracious” stole food from Patricia’s other cat. A spritz of water or a firm “no” deterred her – until Patricia turned her back!

Eating Disorders In Cats
Patricia began to wonder if Elizabeth had an eating disorder. If people do, why not cats? She set up an appointment with me at the ASPCA’s new behavior clinic. As a veterinarian, as well as an animal behaviorist, I am trained to look at both medical and psychological causes of behavior problems.

When I met Elizabeth, I noticed that she was thin. If she was eating so much, why was she still so skinny? I took a history from Patricia, who described the cat’s appetite, as well as her chronic diarrhea.

I thought about the causes of excessive appetite in cats. Probably the most common is the constant availability of tasty food and the lack of anything much to do. But cats in this situation, unlike Elizabeth, are usually overweight. And they don’t act like they’re starving.

Could this be a compulsive eating disorder? They do exist in cats, but usually involve Siamese and Siamese crosses who ingest woven fabrics. Pica, the ingestion of unusual objects, is also seen in cats. Many cats eat plastic. Not Elizabeth. She only ate food. Because Elizabeth was underweight and had chronic diarrhea, I didn’t think compulsive behavior was her problem.

A Question Of Nourishment
It seemed to me that Elizabeth’s hunger might be due to the need for nutrients. Maybe she was unable either to digest her food properly or to absorb the nutrients from her intestines. I consulted with Dr. Arnold Plotnick, vice president of animal health at The ASPCA.

Dr. Plotnick thought this was a possibility. Since Elizabeth was scheduled to be spayed in a few days, Dr. Plotnick suggested that we biopsy her intestines at the same time. The biopsy revealed that Elizabeth had Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a relatively common disorder of cats. An inflammation of the intestine, it could have been affecting Elizabeth’s ability to absorb nutrients from her food. It was also the cause of her diarrhea. IBD is sometimes caused by a food allergy. So the first thing that Dr. Plotnick recommended was that Elizabeth be taken off her present diet and fed a food that she had never been exposed to. If her diarrhea improved and her appetite became more normal, a food allergy was most likely the cause.

Elizabeth was started on a diet of rabbit, and an almost miraculous improvement was seen. Her diarrhea disappeared, and her appetite returned to normal. What had appeared to be a case for Feline Overeaters Anonymous turned out to be a severe bellyache! Elizabeth was placed on a hypoallergenic diet, and is now doing fine.

Note: Although a change of diet seems to have cured Elizabeth, this does not necessarily hold true for all cats with IBD. Many require drug therapy. Therefore, even if your cat’s signs seem to resemble Elizabeth’s, see your veterinarian for a workup before you try a new diet.