Gastrointestinal Issues in Cats

Gastrointestinal problems are a common problem in cats. Vomiting, diarrhea and reluctance to eat is the main reason cats are taken to the vets daily.

There are many causes, we will touch upon the most prolific below.

Intestinal Parasites

Intestinal parasites are very common in outdoor cats and those who have had fleas. Intestinal parasites are not always easy to catch. The easiest types of parasites to spot are tapeworm and roundworm.

Worms such as whipworms and hookworms are a little harder to detect. This is due to their reluctance in showing up in fecal floats.

It is important to remember that no worming tablets or treatments will get rid of all parasites. It can be hard to know which intestinal parasite your cat is carrying. Which is why it is important for prolonged cases to be referred to a vet. Your vet will carry out a blood test to find, out which parasites your cat is a host to.

Your cat is likely to become host to parasites from fecal-oral contamination. This is most likely to occur when your cat steps on waste from another animal in the litter tray. As you know, cat’s groom using their paws, once they put their paw to their mouth they’ve ingested the parasite.

Cats can also ingest parasites from eating grass which an animal has defecated on. Astonishingly, eggs can live in fecal matter in the environment for up to two years.

The good news is that practically all intestinal parasites in cats are treatable. The hardest part can often be finding which parasite it is!

Intestinal Bacterial Growth

Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (IBO) is a secondary issue which follows primary intestinal upset. This could be anything from stress to other intestinal diseases. Inside of your cat’s intestinal tract is trillions of bacteria, which aid digestion. The good bacteria help to break down food, yet, some bacteria are waiting to cause disease.

Usually, the ‘bad’ bacteria are kept in check with the ‘good’ bacteria. Yet, there’s not always enough good bacteria to stop the bad. When this happens, it will commonly result in diarrhea or vomiting. Your cat’s symptoms will depend on where the infection is located in the intestinal tract.

Vets generally treat IBO with antibiotics. Yet, this may also wipe out the good bacteria and cause further problems down the line. So, it is crucial to target the ‘bad’ bacteria with specific forms of antibiotics.

Probiotics also help to restore the normal balance of bacteria in your cats’ gut. With immediate treatment and care cases of IBO are often quickly resolved.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are common in cats, even kittens can develop food allergies. Whilst allergies aren’t life threatening, prolonged exposure to allergens is.

When your cat has a food allergy, this triggers an immune system response. That response often leads to inflammation, vomiting, and nausea. Over time, this could lead to IBD and intestinal cancer.

So, if you think your cat is suffering from food allergies, seek a professional opinion. If you had a nut allergy and the only nutrition on offer were peanuts, you’d have no choice but to make yourself ill. This is what cats do every time they eat food containing their allergens. If in doubt, get a diagnosis.

Certain food allergies are more common than others. Younger cats are prone to being averse to carbohydrates. Yet, this is easy to fix by placing the cat on a high-protein low-carbohydrate diet. For older cats, it’s fish that tends to be a common allergen. But it worth noting that cats can be allergic to any ingredient in their food. This is why it is important to give your cats high-quality food with natural ingredients. Generally, with food allergies, the cat will have to have been exposed to the allergen for a while. Cat’s don’t tend to be allergic to something they’ve never been exposed to.

The diagnosis of food allergies is very much by trial and error.

The first step is to try a hypoallergenic diet trial. This will mean ditching the cat food you buy at the supermarket and trying a prescription diet. The hypoallergenic diet will last between 4-6 weeks. If effective, the diagnosis is simple, your cat has a food allergy!

Restrictive diets won’t tell you what the allergen is to, yet there is some good news. Your cat can stay on the hypoallergenic diet with no adverse effects indefinitely. If you’d like to get to the bottom of your cat’s allergies, blood testing is available. Your vet will draw blood and test the serum for antibodies to certain ingredients. Or, your vet will want to do a skin scratch test.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

IBD is all too common in cats. Which isn’t great for two reasons. First, it’s hard to diagnose. Second, it’s not so comfortable for your cat and can come with some nasty side effects. IBD usually affects the intestinal tract, but the problem can also reach the stomach too. IBD can affect the entire length of the GI or a small area. It is the result of a higher than usual number of white blood cells.

If left untreated, this will result in the intestines thickening. In time scar tissue will develop. This will prevent the absorption of essential nutrients and calories. In later stages of IBD, cats will lose body mass as they struggle to absorb the nutrients from their diet.

IBD has many causes, amongst the most common are:

  • Food allergies
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Internal Bacterial Overgrowth
  • Chronic stress

Yet in some cases, there is no obvious reason for the IBD. Which is what vets refer to as idiopathic IBD.

For a definitive diagnosis, a biopsy of the intestine will be carried out by your vet. This will examine the thickness of the intestines in the GI. When abdominal surgery isn’t an option, your cat may be treated for IBD under presumption.

Treatment is usually centered around the prescription of steroids. Your cat may also benefit from immunosuppressants. Both treatments can come with their own side effects and issues. As each cat is different the options will need to be discussed with your vet. Steroids can often come with the high risk of diabetes after a long-term dose. Whilst immunosuppressants can cause bone marrow suppression and anorexia.

The treatment often comes with side effects yet the effects of untreated IBD are far worse. If the inflammation is not kept under control, this can lead to intestinal lymphoma. The treatment should be supplemented by a hypoallergenic diet. As it’s possible that a food allergy was the cause of the IBD. Opt for a cat food low in residue, and you may start to see a change in the cat’s condition.

Another diet to aid the suppression of IBD is the raw food diet. It makes sense if you think about it. A cat’s biology is engineered to eat the raw food it catches in the wild. They were never designed to eat carbohydrates or eggs. It’s no wonder that cat food often results in intestinal inflammation. Never put your cat on a raw food diet without first consulting a vet. Your vet will tell you how to create a nutritionally balanced diet. Or you could try a commercial raw food diet. Some companies have even experimented with intensely pasteurized food which kills more bacteria.

Foreign Bodies

There are many ways foreign bodies can end up in your cat’s intestinal tract. Vets never cease to be amazed at what they pull out of cat’s stomachs.

There was a cat who infamously had 100 hair bands removed from their stomach. Although that was an unusual case, ingestion of foreign objects does happen from time to time. Younger cat’s are more likely to eat foreign objects, yet it is still not unlikely to happen with older cats.

If your cat likes to chew, or you are missing something and your cat starts vomiting, call the vet ASAP. Your vet will be able to perform an x-ray to search for the foreign object. Yet, unfortunately, only thick plastic and metal will show up on an x-ray. So, rubber, linen, and any other form of soft material will go undetected. Yet, your vet will be able to spot these foreign objects by looking for clues in the gas patterns in the intestines. Other signs are if your cat’s stomach appears distended, even if they’ve gone a day or two without food.

The final way to check for foreign bodies is to pass barium through your cat. Barium is a liquid agent which your vet will feed to your cat through a syringe. Then your vet will take a series of x-rays to watch the fluid travel through the system. If it gets stuck along the way, this is a sure sign of the presence of a foreign object.

In some cases, exploratory surgery is the only option. This is a last resort for vets. If no foreign objects are located, your vet will take a biopsy to test for other conditions.

Chronic Constipation

Chronic constipation is a lot more common in older cats. The condition can affect some breeds more than others. Manx cats are particularly susceptible to the condition.

For older cats, chronic constipation is due to their kidneys losing moisture. This is often a result of chronic kidney disease. Less moisture in the kidneys means less moisture in the stool which will make them hard to pass. Arthritis can also result in constipation as your cat gets a little older. It may hurt or cause them discomfort when they squat to defecate. This leads to a build-up of fecal matter in the lower GI tract.

Younger cats can suffer from constipation without any discernible cause. Yet, every case of chronic constipation must be dealt with by a veterinary professional. As over time, the colon muscles can stretch, as the muscle stretches, your cat can develop a ‘megacolon’. That’s about as nice for your cat as it sounds. During an invasive surgical procedure, the surgeon will remove the colon completely. After the removal of the colon, the small intestine will be surgically attached to the anus. This may then mean that your cat is susceptible to chronic long-term diarrhea.

If your vet suspects constipation issues, the first port of call is to rule out kidney disease. If there is no evidence of underlying disease, your vet will recommend the high-fiber diet. Alternative options include stool softeners and fiber supplements. The fiber added to the diet will aid in increasing moisture in the stool, alongside bulking up the stool.

Adding fiber to your cat’s diet is effective in treating early stages of constipation. Yet, in later stages, the damage may have already caused the colon to stretch. The stretching of the colon means that stools will be even bigger and harder to pass. At that stage, medication to increase intestinal motility will be prescribed. Most cats do well with this course of treatment, and can go on to lead happy, healthy lives!

Gastrointestinal Cancer

GI-related cancers often share similar symptoms with other gastrointestinal problems in cats. Which is why it is vital you seek treatment for any long-term or chronic issue. If your cat is vomiting, has chronic diarrhea, or is not accepting food, take them for a check over to put your mind at ease.

The most common form of cancer affecting the GI tract is lymphoma. This can develop on its own, or be a progression from Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Cats aged between 9 and 13 are most likely to be diagnosed with lymphoma.

In some cases, Lymphoma can respond to chemotherapy. Yet in most cases, your cat will need palliative care and medication. Whilst this medication will not cure the disease, it will aid your cat’s comfort. The medication will usually consist of immunosuppressants and/or steroids.

Whilst it is natural for you to want to help your cat, at some point, you’ll have a tough decision to contend with. Your vet will always give you the best options available for your cat.

Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I’m not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I’m either spending time with my cats or my other half… Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!