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Cat Digestive Problems: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

An occasional episode of upset stomach isn’t all that unusual in felines. It’s one of the most common conditions that veterinarians treat. And most cat owners know what it’s like to wake up to the sound of a hairball in the middle of the night. 

So, at what point do vomiting, diarrhea, or other digestive issues become a concern? And, how many hairballs are too many?

Here are some important things to know about cat digestive system problems.

Symptoms of Cat Digestive Issues

Digestive issues (also known as gastrointestinal or GI issues) may be obvious and sudden. Or, they could be subtle and develop gradually over time. 

Below are some of the most common clinical signs you may see:

Cats usually won’t have all these symptoms at once. So, even just one or two of these signs can be a cause for concern.

What Causes Digestive Problems in Cats?

There are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of causes of stomach/intestinal upset in cats. Here, we’ll cover some of the most common causes.

Hairballs

You can recognize hairballs as vomit that contains significant amounts of hair, usually formed into tube or cylinder-like shapes. Food and digestive fluids are commonly vomited up alongside the hairball, too.

You’ll probably also recognize the characteristic sounds of a cat bringing up a hairball. It might sound like coughing or wheezing initially, but the term “coughing up a hairball” is technically incorrect. Hairballs are vomited from the stomach rather than coughed up, so you may also hear retching or heaving.

To some extent, hairballs are normal. However, with the exception of long-haired breeds, cats evolved to ingest some hair during grooming, then pass it out harmlessly in their stool.

So, too many hairballs can be a symptom of an underlying health or digestive problem.

How many hairballs are too many? There’s no exact rule, but many vets agree that a hairball more often than once per month is cause for investigation into a cat’s digestive health. 

To minimize hairballs, long-haired cats usually need to be brushed often, daily if possible. 

Cats of all hair lengths who are prone to hairballs may benefit from a special diet (hairball control diets or a cat food with the right fiber balance) or from supplements that are designed to help hair move along through the digestive tract (Laxatone is a popular choice).

Dietary Indiscretion

A dietary indiscretion means that a kitty ate something they shouldn’t have, such as garbage, table scraps, or old food they found on the floor. 

Fortunately, this is less common in cats than in dogs, but it happens. Symptoms may range from mild stomach upset to severe illness requiring medical care.

Food Changes

Digestive problems can occur during any food change. Even when switching to a healthy diet, the body takes time to adjust. 

For this reason, all food changes should be done slowly over 1-2 weeks. In addition to minimizing digestive upset, this slow transition will make a kitty more likely to accept a new type of food.

Stress 

Stress may cause digestive issues such as decreased appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea in cats. Since kitties are creatures of habit, any significant change in the home or in their routine may lead to stress.

Even if stress is the cause, it’s important to still seek veterinary care as needed. Complications such as dehydration can occur regardless of what caused a cat’s digestive symptoms in the first place.

If you’re moving, traveling, etc., talk to your vet about supplements to help your kitty during those times. Also, look into Feliway products, which contain a calming cat pheromone.

Infectious Causes of Cat Digestive Issues

Infections with viruses, bacteria, and intestinal parasites (like roundworm) are most common in young kittens. And since their immune systems aren’t fully developed yet, they can get sick quickly and more severely (some infections can be fatal) when compared to adult cats. 

However, kitties of any age may be affected, especially if they go outdoors. Even indoor cats can acquire certain infections or parasites, so ask your vet about prevention. And make sure your pet’s vaccines are up to date for travel or boarding.

Inflammatory Conditions of the Digestive Tract

Some felines may develop food allergies and sensitivities, or even inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Cats may also develop pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), which can lead to inefficient digestion in the long-term.

Not all the causes of inflammatory conditions are understood. Diagnosis may involve a feeding trial on a specific type of food with limited ingredients.

Once diagnosed, treatment usually involves strict adherence to a diet that works best for that individual cat, as well as certain supplements. Medications are often needed, too. Some cats might only need medications occasionally, for flare-ups, while some pets must take medications long-term to control their symptoms.

Toxins and Medications

Certain foods (such as sugar-free gum, fatty foods, or desserts) or other substances (household chemicals, poisons, medications, or even certain types of plants and flowers) may cause digestive upset if a cat eats them. 

Additionally, many of these toxins can affect the body in other ways (such as kidney failure or seizures) and may be fatal.

Even for pet-safe medications, such as antibiotics prescribed by your vet, stomach upset is a common side effect. 

Intestinal Blockages in Cats

An intestinal blockage is anything that obstructs the passage of food and fluids through the digestive tract, or prevents normal motility of the intestines. Treatment almost always requires surgery, and it may be fatal. Fortunately, many cats do well with prompt veterinary treatment.

In cats, the condition is often due to ingesting a “foreign object,” such as a small toy or a string that gets stuck in the stomach or intestines. Sometimes, blockages are caused by underlying health conditions, such as a tumor or intestinal motion problem. Rarely, it can be caused by a hairball.

An intestinal blockage is a very serious condition that must be addressed right away. Common symptoms include a cat being unable to keep down food or water, frequent vomiting (or dry heaving if there’s no food in the stomach), and generally not feeling well (lethargic, dehydrated, feverish, painful, etc.). 

To prevent an intestinal blockage, don’t allow unsupervised access to any toys or small objects that could accidentally be swallowed. Be especially vigilant about preventing access to strings, thread, yarn, tinsel, etc. Supervised playtime with string toys is fine, just put the toy away when playtime is finished.

Constipation

Constipation, or difficulty having regular bowel movements, can happen in any cat, although it’s most common in overweight cats, inactive cats, or cats with underlying digestive or health problems (such as kidney disease that causes dehydration). 

Common symptoms include straining to go to the bathroom without producing stools, a decrease in the amount of stools found in the litter box, dry stools, abdominal pain, appetite decrease, or vomiting.

If your kitty suffers from frequent constipation, your vet may recommend a special diet, supplements, increased water intake (a water fountain or canned food may help with this), or weight loss and increased exercise if applicable.

Underlying Health Conditions That Cause Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Diseases outside the gastrointestinal tract may cause digestive problems. Common examples include kidney disease and an overactive thyroid gland, especially in older cats

Treatment varies depending on the underlying health condition.

Cancer May Cause Gastrointestinal Issues

Lymphoma is very common in cats. It infiltrates large portions of the intestinal tract, and symptoms may appear very similar to food allergies or IBD. But digestive issues can also occur due to a tumor in the digestive tract, or even cancer somewhere else in the body. 

Treatment may be targeted at the cancer directly, as well as supportive care to provide relief from symptoms.

Diagnosis of Cat Digestive Problems

Getting to the bottom of the issue — and diagnosing a cat in order to provide the best possible treatment — requires some investigation. 

A vet visit usually starts with a veterinary team member asking about your kitty’s symptoms, and anything they could have been exposed to (for example, if there are any plants in the home your cat could have munched on).

After that, a veterinarian performs the physical exam. Not only does this include feeling the abdomen for signs of abnormalities, it also covers checking a cat’s temperature, pulse, heart, lungs, hydration, glands/lymph nodes, and more. This provides valuable information about a pet’s overall health, and helps guide the diagnostic testing plan.

Diagnostic testing provides more information about what’s going on inside a pet’s body. Common diagnostics for stomach issues include:

  • A fecal/stool check for parasites.
  • Bloodwork (for blood cell counts, organ function, blood sugar, and electrolytes).
  • A urine analysis.
  • X-rays.
  • Ultrasound.
  • Hormonal testing.
  • Infectious disease testing.
  • A food trial to rule out food allergies.
  • If indicated, additional procedures such as a surgery, endoscopy, or biopsies.

Don’t worry — all of these tests are usually not needed all at once. Instead, your veterinarian will create a customized plan based on the most likely conditions your pet may have.

Often, this involves starting with basic tests, then moving on to more advanced or invasive testing if there is no improvement — unless an emergency condition is suspected, in which case testing and treatment can’t be delayed.

Treatment for Cat Digestive System Problems

Treatment is directed at the underlying cause. 

For example, a kitty with constipation may need an enema, while a cat with an intestinal blockage usually needs surgery. In other words, treatment is variable depending on what’s causing the digestive upset.

Additionally, supportive care is needed. 

Supportive care is anything directed at relieving symptoms and helping a pet feel more comfortable.

Also, it’s crucial to prevent complications such as dehydration or fatty liver disease. The latter is a potentially-fatal liver problem that can occur in as little as 2 days if a cat doesn’t eat, regardless of what caused their upset stomach in the first place.

Examples of common supportive care treatments include:

  • Anti-nausea medications.
  • Antacids and stomach/intestinal protectants.
  • Medicines to relieve diarrhea.
  • Probiotics formulated for pets.
  • Appetite stimulants.
  • Fluid therapy (for dehydration and electrolyte replacement).

When Is a Veterinary Visit Needed for a Cat’s Digestive System Problems?

With cats, it’s best to err on the side of caution and seek care sooner rather than later whenever you notice symptoms. Felines are notorious for hiding symptoms of illness until a disease has progressed.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to rush your cat to the vet in the middle of the night, especially if your kitty is eating and otherwise acting normally. 

However, an urgent veterinary visit (or emergency visit if your cat is very ill) is warranted for the following situations:

  • Your kitty is a young kitten, an older senior, or has a chronic health condition. These cats can get sick much faster than a healthy adult cat.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea is severe, frequent, or very bloody.
  • A cat hasn’t eaten for 2 days or more.
  • Digestive issues are accompanied by symptoms such as listlessness, dehydration, pain, breathing difficulties, or fever.

Treating a Cat’s Digestive System Problems at Home

For adult cats who are otherwise healthy, acting like their normal selves, keeping down food and water, and only having mild digestive symptoms, it’s usually okay to try some simple home treatments for a couple of days. Just be sure to schedule a veterinary visit if your pet gets worse, or if their symptoms don’t improve.

Here are a few things to try:

  • Encourage water intake.
  • Hand feed a cat with a decreased appetite, or tempt their appetite with a tasty food such as plain cooked chicken or tuna.
  • If you’ve recently changed cat foods, try switching back to the old food. Make any future changes gradually, over 1-2 weeks.

Don’t give medications without first checking with your vet—many medications are toxic to cats! This includes oral medications, as well as some types of enemas.

What to Feed a Cat With Digestive Issues

If only there were a simple answer to this question! The truth is, the answer varies from cat to cat. Certain diets work better for some individuals than for others. 

Here are some common options that work well for many kitties:

  • A hairball control diet.
  • A sensitive stomach diet.
  • A limited ingredient diet or prescription diet for cats with allergies or food sensitivities.

Finding the best food for your individual pet involves trial and error. Usually, a food must be fed exclusively for several weeks to determine its effects on the body. Your veterinarian can help guide you through the process.

Prevention of Digestive Issues in Cats

Some conditions can’t be prevented. But fortunately, many common causes of digestive problems in cats are preventable.

Try these tips:

  • Keep your furry friend up to date on all recommended veterinary checkups, vaccinations, and parasite prevention. Routine care helps a cat stay as healthy as possible.
  • Feed your pet a balanced, high-quality cat food.
  • Prevent access to garbage, common household toxins, plants/flowers, and toys or strings that could be accidentally swallowed.
  • Don’t allow your cat to roam free outside the home.

Since digestive issues are very common in cats, most pets will have at least a few episodes of stomach upset during their lifetime. But by taking precautions and seeking veterinary care early if your kitty isn’t feeling well you can help keep your furry BFF as healthy as possible.

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