What Causes Inflammatory & Irritable Bowel Disease and Other Gastrointestinal Issues in Pets?
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a condition resulting from an inflammatory condition and an infiltration of the gut wall with inflammatory cells. The lining of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract may become thickened; nutrient absorption may be compromised; and the speed of passage of food and waste material through the gastrointestinal tract may be altered. The signs of IBD may include one or more of the following:
- chronic diarrhea or loose stools
- difficult or painful bowel movements
- distended or tender abdomen
- fresh blood or mucus in the stool
- chronic or intermittent vomiting (this is the primary—and often only—sign of IBD in cats)
- poor appetite
- lower energy level
While dozens of other problems can cause these symptoms, when they become more frequent and chronic, then the diagnosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) needs to be explored.
For the occasional bout of vomiting or diarrhea, especially if associated with consuming something unusual, feeding a bland diet (such as plain cooked chicken, lamb, or turkey with white rice) for a few days may take care of the problem. If so, then gradually re-introduce the pet's regular food. (CAUTION: Never allow a cat to skip meals. If the cat refuses the bland diet, try turkey or lamb baby food alone; all-meat canned food; warm up the food; or add meat broth to make it tastier.)
The causes of IBD are not always clear, but may include food allergies and sensitivities, parasitic infections, or adverse drug reactions. Untreated food allergies may progress to IBD. (The most common allergens in dogs are beef, chicken, milk, eggs, corn, wheat, and soy; and in cats, fish, beef, and dairy products). Food colorings and other additives, especially in dry food, may cause a dietary intolerance that mimics IBD signs. Over-vaccination, which can create a hyperactive immune state, may also be a factor in chronic GI problems.
Diagnosis begins with blood and urine tests to rule out more serious conditions such as liver or kidney disease, and a fecal exam to rule out parasites and bacterial infections. More advanced diagnostic tools, such as ultrasound or allergy testing, may be helpful for ruling out other conditions that cause similar signs. If a definitive diagnosis is desired, then an endoscopic or surgical biopsy (obtaining tissue samples) of the intestinal lining may be needed.
Conventional treatment typically includes one of the veterinary "prescription" diets; unfortunately, most of them contain poor quality ingredients. Ask your veterinarian about the available options. Conventional care may also include the use of steroids or other immuno-suppressive therapies to inhibit the immune response and reduce symptoms.
What Can You Feed a Dog or Cat with Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Alternative treatment always begins with diet. At a minimum, a dog or cat with IBD needs a very high quality canned food with no artificial preservatives. If you must feed some kibble, try a limited antigen or "hypoallergenic" one. Better yet would be the addition of home prepared foods (properly balanced by following a recipe). Please see our article What You Need to Know About Your Pet's Food for a more detailed discussion of a healthy diet. Dogs and cats with gastrointestinal difficulties often respond VERY well to a raw diet, and once transitioned need no other supplements to stay healthy and symptom free. (CAUTION: If severe inflammation is present, there is a risk of infection from the bacteria naturally present in raw meat. Start with cooked meat and gradually reduce cooking time as symptoms improve.) You can learn more about raw food in our article All About Raw Food.
In some cases of IBD, extra fiber in the diet can be helpful. When the stomach and small intestine are involved, a lower fiber diet may be best. Eliminating grains, especially for cats, can also be helpful. For dogs grains such as rice, quinoa, millet or other lower gluten or gluten-free grains may be tolerated.
Natural Alternative Treatments for IBD in Pets
In addition to raw food or a very high quality canned food (especially for cats) and hypoallergenic kibble (or dogs), a good digestive enzyme and probiotic supplement is important to aid digestion and help repopulate the GI tract with healthy bacteria (see digestive enzymes).
For additional support in healing the GI tract, supplements containing beneficial nutrients, amino acids, enzymes, and herbs may be very helpful (see GI support products).
"At a minimum, a dog or cat with IBD needs a very high quality canned food with no artificial preservatives."
A Chinese Herbal remedy such as Health Concerns Quiet Digestion or Health Concerns Stomach Tabs can also be beneficial in alleviating symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea and soothing the digestive tract. A veterinarian who is certified in Traditional Chinese Medicine can prescribe further Chinese herbal remedies; many have been shown to be very effective.
For more severe cases, extra L-glutamine and probiotics may be needed in the beginning of treatment.
Except for "emergency" bland diets, always make significant diet changes very slowly to allow your animal's system time to adjust; and start with half the recommended dose of each supplement and build up over several days. It is wise to stagger the introduction of each supplement by 2-3 days, introducing only one at a time and adding gradually. That way you will able to tell which ones are working!
Acupuncture can be helpful for many gastrointestinal conditions including IBD. For a list of practitioners in your area see the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association referral directory.