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Gastrointestinal and Digestive Disorders in Cats

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What are gastrointestinal and digestive disorders?

Any disorder that reduces the digestion or absorption of food, or alters its passage through the digestive tract, can be called a digestive disorder. Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders affect a cat's stomach and intestines, resulting in pain and other problems. Efficient digestion is essential for your cat to be able to build and repair tissues and obtain energy.

Digestive disorders in cats are quite common and most clear up within a few days. But some cats need long-term management because they have regular or permanent digestive problems. GI disorders can lead to dehydration, acid-base and electrolyte imbalances and malnutrition so it is important to recognize the signs and consult with your veterinarian.

Rate that food moves through the body

What are the types and causes of digestive disorders?

There are many different types of digestive disorders. The causes of digestive disorders range from eating something other than cat food, to food intolerance or sensitivities, infections, or lack of digestive enzymes. Some cat breeds such as Sphynx, Rex and Ragdoll, are more prone to particular digestive problems. Your veterinarian may carry out tests to determine the exact cause of your cat’s GI problem.

Commonly diagnosed conditions include:

Acute gastroenteritis: An inflamed digestive tract, usually short-term. Causes may include eating rancid or spoiled food, swallowing foreign objects, eating toxic plants, internal parasites, stress, food allergies and some disease conditions.

Colitis: More common in cats under the age of 5, colitis causes inflammation of the large intestine that results in frequent, painful passing of feces. If your cat is experiencing colitis, it may contain mucus and blood. Most frequently, colitis is caused by tumors or polyps, a change in food, allergies (including those to food), swallowed foreign objects and certain other diseases.

Diarrhea: Caused by infections, internal parasites, stress, a change in cat food, table scraps or rich snacks, eating spoiled food from the garbage and body organ dysfunction.

Constipation: Usually caused by dehydration, insufficient fiber intake, ingesting hair or other foreign objects, aging, tumors, trauma or fractures, spinal cord disease, large bowel nervous disorders, metabolic or endocrine disorders and debilitation, and lack of exercise.

Pancreatitis: An inflammation or infection of the pancreas (an elongated, tapered gland that is located behind the stomach). Origins are frequently unknown. Potential causes are decreased blood flow (due to dehydration, or other disease processes) infections, disease or trauma.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Commonly associated with chronic inflammation and discomfort of a cat’s bowels, but is typically not directly linked to gastrointestinal disease. Some suspected causes include food intolerances and the ability of the cat food to effectively pass through the gastrointestinal tract. Mental distress can also be a contributing factor for this condition.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: This condition is characterized by weight loss, increased appetite and large amounts of soft feces. Chronic pancreatitis is the most common cause.

Small intestinal malabsorption: Inflammation of the small intestine impairs nutrient absorption and results in persistent diarrhea, weight loss and loss of appetite in your cat.

Does my cat have a gastrointestinal or digestive disorder?

The most common signs of digestive disorders in cats are soft stools or diarrhea. You may also notice some or all of the following signs in your cat.

  • Vomiting
  • Regurgitation
  • Flatulence
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea/constipation
Common signs

Chronic GI disease can be a debilitating problem for many cats and requires testing and a thorough diagnosis from your veterinarian.

IMPORTANT: If your cat has diarrhea or is vomiting, she may become severely dehydrated. Consult your veterinarian if you notice any of these signs.

Treatment: The importance of nutrition

Your cat's food can have a significant impact on her GI tract health. A number of different nutritional approaches could be recommended for your cat depending on the specific diagnosis and the symptoms. The main goal is to alleviate your cat’s signs/symptoms of vomiting and/or diarrhea. Veterinarians recommend feeding cats with this condition a food that is highly digestible to help prevent irritation to her sensitive stomach and intestines. Also, high-soluble and insoluble fiber foods combined with moderate fat levels help support proper intestinal function. It is also important to monitor your cat’s hydration during the recovery phase to help ensure she has enough water and correct any fluid deficiencies.

Because several of these gastrointestinal conditions may be ongoing, long-term nutritional management of the disorder may be required. For accurate diagnosis and treatment options, always consult your veterinarian and ask them to recommend the best food for your cat’s digestive health.

Digestive Health Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian:

  1. Are there any foods I should avoid giving my cat to ensure a healthy digestive system?
    • Ask how human food (such as chocolates or candy) can affect your cat’s health.
  2. Would you recommend a Hill’s® Prescription Diet® or Science Diet® cat food for my cat’s digestive health?
    • Ask about special nutritional concerns for your cat
    • How much / how often you should feed the recommended food to your cat
    • Discuss treats you can feed your cat with the recommended food
  3. Would you recommend a Hill’s® Prescription Diet® or Science Diet® cat food for my cat’s digestive health?
  4. How quickly should I expect to see signs of improvement in my cat’s condition?
  5. Can you provide me with written instructions or a handout on digestive health?
  6. What is the best way (email/phone) to reach you or your hospital if I have questions?
    • Ask if you need a follow-up appointment.
    • Ask if a reminder email or notice will be sent.
  7. Would you recommend a Hill’s® Prescription Diet® or Science Diet® cat food for my cat’s digestive health?