(This article is published with the permission of Dr. Christine Beuoy, Director of Communications and Marketing at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.)
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Occasional vomiting and diarrhea may be normal in cats and dogs. When it happens more than once or twice a month, however, or any time there is blood in the vomit or feces, owners should contact a veterinarian.
One possible diagnosis is inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, a common disease in pets. Dr. Amy Kubier, an internal medicine specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, researches inflammatory bowel disease in dogs. She offers this background information in IBD for pet owners.
“It’s important to have your pet checked if you notice frequent vomiting and diarrhea or see blood—which will look either bright red or like black tar if it has been partially digested—in the vomit or stool,” says Dr. Kubier. “Another sign of IBD is weight loss.”
IBD is a condition in which inflammatory cells invade the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is made up of the stomach, the small intestines, and the large intestines. This infiltration of inflammatory cells often causes thickening of the GI tract and thus can interfere with the GI tracts normal functions, which include absorption and movement of food.
Unfortunately, the causes of IBD are not well understood, but it is thought that a trigger causes inflammatory cells to invade the intestines, leading to chronic stimulation of inflammation in the GI tract.
“The stimulus can be anything, but common stimuli include parasites, food allergies, or something that has gone wrong in an individual’s immune system,” Dr. Kubier explains.
To diagnose IBD, veterinarians take a thorough history and perform a physical examination.
“Often the thickened intestines can be detected by the physical examination, especially in a cat or smaller dog, or an abdominal ultrasound may be performed,” says Dr. Kubier. “Blood and urine may be checked for evidence of a chronic metabolic disease.”
If the veterinarian suspects IBD, the next step may be either to biopsy the intestines for a definitive diagnosis or to start therapy and see how the pet responds. Dr. Kubier recommends getting a true diagnosis with biopsies if the pet is healthy enough. The biopsies will help determine what is causing the thickening of the intestine, which may be cancer rather than inflammatory cells. Identifying the type of inflammatory cells can help tailor the treatment for the animal.
“For biopsies of the intestines, your pet will be put under general anesthesia and an endoscope—a flexible tube with a camera on the end—will be inserted through the mouth to the small intestines or through the colon to obtain tissue samples,” explains Dr. Kubier. “Biopsies can also be obtained surgically. Endoscopy is typically available only in large veterinary practices or referral centers, so you may be referred to a specialist for this procedure.”
Treatment for IBD depends on the type of inflammatory cells identified. Dr. Kubier explains that there are typically three steps to the treatment plan. First, a deworming medication is given, even if the pet is on monthly heartworm preventative and has tested negative for intestinal parasites.
The veterinarian will then assess the animal’s diet and recommend an appropriate food made specifically for animals with IBD.
The final phase of treatment is immunosuppression.
“Because we believe that IBD is in part a result of the body inappropriately signaling inflammatory cells to the intestines, the immune system is suppressed to prevent this. Immunosuppression is done with medication, such as prednisone or one of many other options,” states Dr. Kubier.
With appropriate treatment, most cats and dogs with IBD can live a happy and good quality life, according to Dr. Kubier. Some patients may require medications for a few months, while others may need medication for the rest of their lives. This means that animals with IBD will require more frequent veterinary check-ups.
In a few animals, IBD can be very severe and refractory to treatment, and even fatal; because of this, it is recommended that you discuss your concerns with your veterinarian as soon as they develop.
“An animal with IBD may never be cured of IBD, but usually the disease can be managed throughout the pet’s life,” she says.
For more information about inflammatory bowel disease in pets, contact your local veterinarian.