Pet 411: The ABCs of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease)

As a pet owner, there are few things more wrenching than watching your beloved furry family member suffer from repeated attacks of vomiting or diarrhea. It’s even worse when your veterinarian tells you the source of the problem isn’t easily diagnosed.

Unfortunately, that’s the case with inflammatory bowel disease. One of our Pet 411 readers wrote to me to find out more about this condition, which is defined by an accumulation of inflammatory cells in the lining of a pet’s stomach, small intestine and/or large intestine that causes digestive distress.

The signs of IBD include chronic vomiting, weight loss, diarrhea and/or loss of appetite.  Any of these signs can be seen when the stomach and small intestines are involved. If the condition is affecting the large intestine, signs include diarrhea with or without blood or mucous, straining to defecate and increased urgency to defecate. If you notice any of these, it’s best to get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

One of the most common causes of IBD is diet, where pets are usually allergic to the protein source in their food (typically chicken or beef). In other cases, it’s triggered by the pet’s autoimmune system – an abnormal response by the body to the normal contents in the gastrointestinal tract.

IBD can be frustrating because there’s no easy way to test for it.  Often times bloodwork, x-rays and even ultrasound are normal.  To get an accurate diagnosis, a veterinarian must perform a biopsy. The best results come from a biopsy performed during surgery or laparoscopy, where a thin, lighted tube is inserted through a small incision in the abdomen.  Biopsies can also be done using endoscopy, which is less invasive, but the results may not be quite as diagnostic, especially if the disease is further down than the endoscope can reach.

If it’s determined that your pet has IBD, the veterinarian may recommend making a change to your pet’s diet, either to a different protein source or a hypoallergenic diet.

The condition can also be treated medically with anti-inflammatory drugs such as prednisone and antibiotics such as metronidazole or tetracycline. It is not recommended to start these medications without a diagnosis because it is possible your pet does not respond or requires more medications and the disease is much harder to diagnose once medications have been started.

The prognosis for IBD is generally pretty good and most pets respond well to treatment. The disease can’t be cured, however, so the goal of treatment is to control the symptoms and improve quality of life. Unfortunately not all animals respond to medications.

I hope that’s helpful to our reader. If you have more questions, I would encourage you to contact your family veterinarian.

Have a wonderful Halloween, everyone – just be sure to keep your four-legged friends away from the candy bowl!

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.