Expert Advice on Cats With Gastrointestinal Problems

Updated July 8, 2019
Vet holding cat

An upset stomach is no fun for you or your kitty. Knowing how to feed a cat with gastrointestinal problems can improve his quality of life and help reduce the incidence of tummy troubles.

What Causes Gastrointestinal Problems in Cats?

Parasites can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and ingestion of foreign bodies can cause vomiting as well as a lack of appetite. For most cats, however, gastrointestinal disease is caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • Diet
  • Genetics
  • The individual cat's immune system
  • Changes in the bacterial population of the intestines

Cat Breeds Prone to Stomach Distress

Any cat, whether purebred or not, can develop gastrointestinal disease. "In my clinical practice, Siamese and Rex cats seem to be affected more frequently," says Dr. Michele Gaspar, board-certified feline specialist (Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners) and a consultant on the Feline Internal Medicine Board of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). "This most likely is due to the genetics of gastrointestinal disease."

A Cat's Diet and Gastrointestinal Health

There are several theories about the possible link between diet and gastrointestinal disease in cats. "Some believe that chronic exposure to food allergens elicits an immune response in the intestinal tract and starts an inflammatory cascade. Others theorize that diet can adversely impact the normal bacterial population, which can drive inflammation."

gray shorthair cat with food can

Signs and Symptoms of Gastrointestinal Problems in Cats

Cats with intestinal disease have a wide range of clinical signs.

Weight Loss

Weight loss, despite a normal or even increased appetite, is very common in cats with stomach problems. Cats that are chronically ill usually have a loss of fat over the spine.


Some cats will routinely vomit food, fluid and/or hairballs and this is normal. However vomiting more than once a day is a cause for concern.

Excessive Hairballs

Says Dr. Gaspar, "Contrary to what many pet lovers believe, hairballs are not normal in cats, and they are not due to a 'grease deficiency.' As a result, I do not recommend the use of over-the-counter hairball remedies or hairball diets."

Changes to the Cat's Stool

It's normal for cats with gastrointestinal disease to have diarrhea or constipation.

Loss of Appetite

Reductions in a cat's normal appetite is not unusual, or your cat may not eat for one or more days.

Other Symptoms

Some other common symptoms you may notice are licking of the lips which is an indication your cat is nauseous, hiding more than usual and lethargic behavior.

Veterinary Intervention for Cat Gastrointestinal Issues

Dr. Gaspar cautions cat owners that, "Because the clinical signs of cats with intestinal disease are often similar to those of other diseases (chronic kidney disease, urinary tract obstruction in male cats, chronic progressive kidney disease, diabetes and hyperthyroidism), it is important to promptly seek a veterinary examination and evaluation for your cat or kitten. With most gastrointestinal diseases, lab work and a urinalysis is most often normal. However, normal lab work does not guarantee that your cat doesn't have a problem."

Diagnosing the Cause of Gastrointestinal Upset in Cats

Dr. Gaspar strongly advocates for cat owners to get a full diagnostic workup for their cat with intestinal problems. "I can't stress the importance of a proper diagnostic work-up, and I shudder when clients want 'just the steroids.' I won't supply them in that case. I think we honor our cats when we give them the proper diagnosis." Diagnostics for gastrointestinal disease may include:

  • Radiographs (x-ray)
  • Abdominal ultrasound Tests for B12 and folic acid
  • Endoscopy or exploratory surgery with biopsies

Why a Diagnosis Is Critical

In her experience, Dr. Gaspar has found many clients often believe that symptomatic treatment such as steroids and antibiotics is a less expensive way to proceed. However, she relates that "gastrointestinal disease can be complicated. There are many types of GI disease, and treatment differs between the types of disease. Intestinal disease in cats is often concurrent with pancreatitis and liver disease." Once a cat receives a proper diagnosis and the right type of treatment, "most cats do well with their intestinal disease."

The Importance of Diet for Cats With Gastrointestinal Distress

Dr. Gaspar believes that, "Proper nutrition is a cornerstone of feline health. While I can't change the genetics of my patients, I can work closely with the client to make sure that they are feeding an excellent diet." She, and "most knowledgeable veterinarians," now advise patients to feed a diet that is predominantly canned food. Dry food "generally provides too many carbohydrates and no moisture for our cats," and she advises against an only or mostly dry kibble diet.

Changing a Cat's Diet

For Dr. Gaspar, it's important for cat owners to realize it's about more than just feeding a required diet. Cats must "enjoy their food" and they "will starve themselves with disastrous outcomes, so it's very unwise for cat guardians to assume that a cat will eat a food he or she finds unpalatable." When changing a cat's diet due to stomach or any other type of medical issue, she cautions that, "any food change should be done gradually, generally over a period of 7-10 days, although some cats may need a longer time frame."

hungry kitty

Basic Dietary Recommendations

Because cats require taurine in their diet as an essential amino acid, Dr. Gaspar "recommends a balanced poultry (chicken or turkey) or rabbit canned diet." She also advises her clients to avoid these ingredients in their cat's food:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Seafood
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Milk
  • Wheat gluten

Foods to Avoid

Dr. Gaspar tells "most of my clients that they cannot feed their cats appropriately with foods off the grocery store shelves." She also recommends cat owners avoid the following types of cat food products:

  • Foods with, "what I can only describe as having 'funky shapes and colors'"
  • Sliced products which usually have too many carbohydrates
  • "Foods in bags and/or boxes"
  • Over-the-counter cat treats which "are filled with corn, soy and wheat gluten"

Cat owners should, "Aim to feed a diet that is seven percent carbohydrate or less," and she recommends using "more of the hypoallergenic diet as treats."

Gastrointestinal Cat Food

For specific brands, Dr. Gaspar says, "I generally recommend Nature's Variety Instincts line and Nature's Variety Organic Raw Frozen diet as a cooked diet." She also does not recommend home-prepared raw diets for cats with gastrointestinal issues.

Caring for a Cat With Gastrointestinal Problems

If you own a cat, chances are you'll deal with caring for some type of stomach upset over the course of his lifetime. Intestinal disease is "quite common in our domestic cats and affects cats of all breeds and ages." Make sure you get a thorough veterinary workup to make sure you have the correct disease identified and follow your vet's recommended course of treatment. As Dr. Gaspar says, "diet will play an important role in managing intestinal disease in cats."

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Expert Advice on Cats With Gastrointestinal Problems