Digestive problems in cats are so common in our companion animals that many pet parents think they are normal. But if your cat vomits regularly (once a week or more) or has loose stool, then there is something going on under the hood. It might be time to change her food or her environment, and it's definitely time to talk to your veterinarian. Here are some tips for solving the most common cat digestive problems.
1. Intestinal Worms
Internal parasites are very common in cats — even indoor cats. The most challenging aspect of diagnosing and treating them is that a cat could be infested and never show any signs. The most common intestinal parasites in cats include hookworms, roundworms and tapeworms.
The signs of an intestinal parasite invading the cat digestive system can include:
- Worms in fecal matter or vomit
- Weight loss
- Pot belly
Intestinal worms in cats are not only gross but also contagious to humans, which is why it is important to have your cat's poop tested by your vet once or twice a year. Follow all deworming instructions from your vet if your kitty tests positive.
Constipation is another common woe for the cat digestive system. Constipation can be caused by dehydration, pain, motility (muscle movement) problems in the colon or a rare condition called megacolon stemming from cats that "hold it" for too long or by chronic constipation or obstipation.
Recurring constipation, however, is no laughing matter. Your vet's solutions might include increasing your pet's water intake by supplementing a dry food with canned food, giving her more exercise or getting her to safely lose weight. Your vet might also recommend switching to a cat food that is formulated to help cats with digestive problems, such as a Hill's® Prescription Diet® cat food. If your cat is ever crouching miserably in the litter box to no avail, get her evaluated by a vet as soon as possible.
Hairballs are extremely common, but that doesn't mean your cat has to live with them. Hairballs are formed when a cat is shedding excessive amounts of hair or when the cat has an underlying digestive problem. If your cat passes only the occasional hairball (no more than once a month is considered normal), then you don't necessarily need to call your vet.
For cats who need a food change to control hairballs, Hill's® Science Diet® Adult Hairball Control Light Cat Food can be good choice. It has fiber levels specifically designed to help reduce hairball formation, and it is calorie controlled, which is excellent since in my clinical experience most indoor cats struggle with excessive weight. If the hairball problem continues, consider having your cat professionally groomed (ask for a lion cut) or see your vet.
4. Inflammatory Bowel Disease and GI Lymphoma
One of the more irritating conditions in a cat digestive system is inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD for short. Cat digestive problems associated with IBD include vomiting, diarrhea, loose stool, loss of appetite and weight loss. The exact cause of IBD is not known, but it is thought to be a genetic disorder of the immune system that causes a heightened immune response to food, parasites or bacteria.
IBD is a frustrating disease for vets because the signs mimic many other gastrointestinal disorders and the disease can only be definitively diagnosed with a biopsy of the intestine. Many pet owners do not like the idea of their cat undergoing surgery, so they elect to have a non-invasive abdominal ultrasound performed instead. While IBD cannot be definitively diagnosed from an ultrasound, there are several clues that can suggest a cat is suffering from the disorder, such as thickened intestinal walls. Treatment for IBD usually includes deworming and antibiotics if necessary. Your cat may also need oral or injectable steroids and to switch to a gentler hypoallergenic food.
With IBD, it is important to reduce the inflammation. Chronic inflammation over time can predispose that cat to developing GI lymphoma, which is thought to be a malignant (cancerous) transformation of feline IBD. Follow all instructions from your vet carefully if your cat has been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease.
5. Food Allergies
True food allergies are relatively rare in cats, and usually involve a combination of gastrointestinal signs (vomiting, diarrhea or gas) and skin signs (itchy skin, red patches and hair loss). Food allergies affect the immune system in the gut and skin. The most common food allergies in companion animals include beef, dairy and fish, explains Tufts Cummings Veterinary Medical Center.
If your vet suspects that your cat has a food allergy, they will prescribe an 10-12 weeks hypoallergenic food trial. During this period, you must ONLY feed your cat a prescribed hypoallergenic food to rule out ingredients she might be allergic to. If your cat eats anything else during this time, you have to start the food trial over. In a truly allergic patient, gastrointestinal signs should resolve in two weeks, and skin signs should resolve in eight to 10 weeks. Your vet may also prescribe a steroid to help your cat feel better in the short term.
Don't panic if your cat develops a sudden digestive issue. With the knowledge of what cat digestive problems to watch out for and when an episode warrants a vet visit, you can keep your cat and her stomach happy.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.