Gastrointestinal means anything in relation to the stomach, small intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and colon. As you can imagine, there are many issues that can go wrong with a cat’s gastrointestinal tract. And you may find yourself wondering if a gastrointestinal diet is of use. 

What can cats get wrong with their gastrointestinal tract?

From eating something they shouldn’t (foreign bodies), to bacterial infections, parasite burdens, cancers and even other body systems causing diarrhoea, like hyperthyroidism, cats can get many issues with their gastrointestinal tracts.

Firstly, try not to worry! 

The majority of tummy upsets will be nothing serious and should resolve by themselves or with a little support from your veterinary team. But the fact that there are so many differentials is why it is important to work alongside your veterinary team if you are concerned about your cat’s toileting habits especially if they also appear outwardly sick, lethargic, dull, or they’re unable to stop vomiting, have persistent diarrhoea and so on.

Vomiting and diarrhoea can be an acute or chronic issue and can be primary in cause or secondary. 

Acute vs Chronic

Gastrointestinal disorders in cats can be classified as either acute or chronic. Acute conditions appear suddenly and deteriorate rapidly, such as nasty gastroenteritis episodes. Cats can appear fairly well one day and the next have a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting. 

Chronic conditions develop over time, usually considered over 3 months. They may worsen gradually or even ‘wax and wane’ meaning it seems to get worse and then better in waves.

The treatment your cat receives will depend upon whether their condition is acute or chronic. In some cases, depending on the condition, their long-term nutritional needs may also be affected.

A gastrointestinal or digestive upset can disrupt the function of the stomach and intestines. It can be linked to several illnesses, including pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). As a result of gastrointestinal and digestive problems, cats may not be able to digest the nutrients they usually would. This is because the integrity of their gastrointestinal tract may have been damaged and compromised due to their illness. As a result, this can have a negative impact on your cat’s health which may lead to other problems.

Primary or secondary?

Whether the cause of the signs is primary or secondary is also important to find out, especially in cases that we can’t seem to clear with basic treatment. Some causes are primary – they are caused by an issue within the gastrointestinal tract. Others are secondary, meaning they are caused by something else. If we don’t get to the bottom of the primary issue causing these gastrointestinal signs then we aren’t going to see improvements – a good example of this is that hyperthyroid cats often suffer from diarrhoea, however if we don’t fix the primary issue, the overactive thyroid, then no amount of gastrointestinal food is likely to help clear that. 

Can’t I just feed a bland diet?

When your cat is dealing with digestive upset, homemade diets, including chicken and rice, or cooked fish are often tried or even suggested.

This is something I am not keen on suggesting, as these diets are not complete and may not have the nutrients to support your cat’s overall health and their gastrointestinal tract health, especially if we start to use longer term.

Furthermore, food allergies, although relatively uncommon with an estimated 1% to 10% of cats with skin or ear disorders likely to be food allergic, can add to the issues if we feed something your cat already has sensitivities to. Most basic food ingredients have the potential to induce an allergic response, although most reactions are caused by proteins. Dogs and cats can become sensitive to cow’s milk, beef and fish. Most common causes of food allergies and food intolerance in cats are beef, milk products and fish. Common signs include gastrointestinal signs like vomiting or diarrhoea and flatulence, but also other issues like red inflamed skin, frequent scratching or hair loss.

What should I do?

If you suspect your cat could be suffering from a gastrointestinal issue, it’s important to speak to your veterinary team as soon as possible so they can diagnose and discuss management options.

If your cat has a sensitive stomach or digestive issues, feeding a gastrointestinal cat food diet could offer benefits, as they often contain easily digestible ingredients and increased amounts of electrolytes and nutrients to help support your cat’s digestive health. They may also contain a limited number of protein sources to help minimise adverse intestinal reactions as noted above, the addition of prebiotics to help improve intestinal health, and be formulated with a blend of insoluble and soluble fibres, including a prebiotic (inulin) among other features to support gastrointestinal health. There are also several ‘prescription’ formulations available because nutritional management of gastrointestinal disease in cats is a very broad topic! These issues incorporate both acute and chronic diseases of the stomach, small intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and colon. There may be specific diets and specific formulations more appropriate to your cat’s condition. 

You may want to use a gastrointestinal diet:

  • After a bout of vomiting and diarrhoea 
  • After gastrointestinal tract surgery
  • In cats with pancreatitis
  • Cats with Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Digestive disorders, malabsorption

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