Leaky Gut Syndrome in Cats

By Catherine Barnette, DVM

What is leaky gut syndrome?

Leaky gut syndrome is a term that is used to describe an increase in the permeability of the intestines.

In a healthy pet, the intestinal walls serve as a barrier, keeping foreign materials (such as bacteria, food allergens, toxins, etc.) out of the body’s circulation and tissues. When food is eaten, it passes through the esophagus, stomach, and intestines (undergoing various stages of digestion along the way), but only certain substances are actually absorbed by the intestines and permitted to enter the bloodstream.

In a pet with a leaky gut, the barrier function of the intestines is compromised. Therefore, substances that would normally pass through the intestines can instead cross the intestinal walls and enter the body’s circulation.


What causes leaky gut syndrome?

Leaky gut syndrome can be caused by any significant insult to the intestines.

Some cases of leaky gut are associated with acute (short-term) intestinal damage. Acute causes of leaky gut syndrome in cats include severe intestinal infection, trauma to the abdomen, exposure to particular toxins, and medication overdosages. Any of these insults can damage the cells of the intestinal walls, impairing their barrier function.

Many cases of leaky gut however, are associated with gradual or long-term intestinal damage. This ongoing damage is often attributed to a bacterial imbalance within the intestines. Possible causes of this bacterial imbalance, and the resulting leaky gut, include food allergies, chronic malnutrition, and the long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. While none of these insults are likely to cause leaky gut with short-term exposure, chronic exposure can lead to changes in the intestinal bacteria population, which may result in chronic inflammatory changes within the intestinal cells.


What are the clinical signs of leaky gut syndrome?

Most pets with leaky gut syndrome have gastrointestinal signs, such as weight loss, vomiting, flatulence, and soft stools.

However, it is not these gastrointestinal signs that are the primary concern in this condition. Instead, leaky gut syndrome is a concern because it is believed to increase a pet’s risk of developing a number of diseases that are not directly related to the gastrointestinal tract.

In humans, leaky gut syndrome is associated with inflammatory bowel disease, inflammatory arthritis, inflammatory skin disease, chronic hepatitis, chronic pancreatitis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is theorized leaky gut syndrome in humans contributes to inflammation. There is concern that leaky gut syndrome may also lead to inflammatory diseases in pets, meaning that the clinical signs of leaky gut syndrome could include a wide variety of inflammatory conditions.


How is leaky gut syndrome diagnosed?

Leaky gut syndrome is not a medical diagnosis that can be proven or disproven. Instead, it is a potential effect of a number of different underlying intestinal diseases. Therefore, your veterinarian will perform tests designed to diagnose the underlying disease.

"Your veterinarian will perform tests designed to diagnose the underlying disease."

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam and obtaining a detailed medical history. A fecal sample will be collected and examined under a microscope, to look for intestinal parasites. Blood will be collected for a complete blood cell count and serum biochemistry profile.

Depending on your pet’s signs, additional testing may be recommended. These tests may include radiographs (X-rays) and/or ultrasound of your pet’s abdomen, and/or biopsies of the intestines. These tests can help your veterinarian understand the underlying cause of your pet’s gastrointestinal signs.


How is leaky gut syndrome treated?

The treatment of leaky gut syndrome is centered on decreasing intestinal inflammation to restore the barrier function of the intestines. In many cases, the diagnosis of the underlying cause determines the treatment that is required. In the absence of a definitive diagnosis however, there are some treatments that may be recommended.

"The treatment of leaky gut syndrome is centered on decreasing intestinal inflammation to restore the barrier function of the intestines."

First, any allergens or potential toxins should be removed from your cat’s diet. Your pet should be transitioned to a hypoallergenic diet, unless a food allergy has been definitively ruled out using a veterinarian-directed food trial in the past.

Medications with the potential to cause intestinal inflammation, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, should be discontinued if possible. If your pet has pain from arthritis or another condition, talk to your veterinarian about other options for managing your pet’s discomfort.

Probiotics may be recommended to restore your cat’s normal intestinal bacterial flora. Your veterinarian can help you determine the best probiotic for your pet.

Finally, additional medications may be given to treat intestinal damage. Antioxidants, fatty acid supplements, fiber supplements, and other medications may be used to promote intestinal health and help restore normal intestinal function.

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