Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in Cats: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments
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Does your cat suffer from occasional bouts of sudden onset diarrhoea or pain when they try to pass faeces? If so, your cat may be suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. This is sometimes confused with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), but they are not the same. IBS is usually triggered by stress in cats and causes acute signs, whereas IBD refers to a variety of problems that cause chronic inflammation of the bowel, or chronic enteropathies, as they are now called.
What causes IBS in cats and what are the signs?
IBS in cats is usually triggered by stressful events, such as visitors, a new cat, a new baby, or a trip to the cattery. Because the intestines are in turmoil, it can also be quite uncomfortable. You may notice your cat seems depressed or lethargic, or may seem to have pain when they try to go to the toilet. Your cat may also vomit. You might notice mucus or blood in their poo. They may be in and out of the litter tray much more than usual. If they go to the toilet outside, you might only notice that they are in and out much more than usual. They could also go off their food.
What is the treatment for IBS and what should you feed your cat with IBS?
Your vet may give your cat medication to settle any nausea and help the colicky pain and signs of IBS. It’s important that your cat keeps eating if possible because the gut heals much more quickly if feeding continues. The vet will likely want to put your cat on a gastrointestinal support diet so that they will be well-nourished even if they’re not eating as much as usual. These foods are highly digestible with high-quality ingredients, and often have nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation. They will also have a good blend of prebiotic fibres to help nourish the microbiome and keep the gut healthy. Once the signs have settled, your cat may be able to return to their normal diet. Your vet will advise on the best course of action.
Fundamentally, dealing with the sources of stress is the best way to tackle IBS in cats. If it was a one-off thing, like some noisy visitors or a cattery visit, you may not have much to do. But if there is cat-to-cat conflict in the house, it may become a recurrent problem.
Cats may seem like the most laid-back, chilled creatures on earth, but actually cats can really suffer from stress without showing many obvious signs. They are predators, but they are also prey to larger animals, so are very vigilant to danger and love to have escape opportunities at all times. They live in three dimensions, so they seek out high places such as bookshelves and counter tops to feel secure.
Cats are, by nature, solitary animals. They can live together in some situations, but many cats find themselves sharing their house or garden with one or more cats they don’t like and this can be very stressful for them. Other cats are a threat to their precious resources - food, water, litter trays, and you! Indoor living is also a source of stress for lots of cats because of the frustration of not being allowed to explore.
The most common signs of stress are:
Excessive grooming and hair loss, especially on the stomach and around the hind limbs (always rule out fleas first!).
Urinary problems. Stress-related cystitis is a common problem in cats. You may notice your cat going to the litter tray but only passing a few drops at a time. Always see your vet if you think your cat might have this as it can be very serious.
Toileting in odd locations. If one of your cats is being bullied and not getting access to the garden or the litter tray, they may start going to the toilet in other areas of the house.
Relieving stress in the home
There are some relatively simple changes you can make at home to help your cat, especially if you have more than one cat:
Talk to your vet about diet in the longer term. There are some foods that have natural additives proven to reduce anxiety and help stressed cats. Wet food is always a good idea too (although not essential) because water intake is so important if there are also stress-related bladder issues.
Always have one more litter tray than you have cats. These should be in several locations round the house so there is always access.
The same goes for food and water bowls. Again, these should be in different places around the house. This may be inconvenient for you, but it is much better for your cats. This way all your cats can eat and drink, without needing to confront another cat.
Pheromone diffusers can be a big help. Ask your vet about these.
Look at your house and try to see places where your cats might have to cross paths. Providing shelves and furniture so one can ‘take the high road’ in narrow passageways can make all the difference.
As always, if you’re not sure what might be going on, talk to your vet. We are always happy to help and the sooner the better.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA