by Jennifer Coates, DVM
Whether it’s the hairball you stepped on this morning or the diarrhea you had to clean up this afternoon, gastrointestinal (GI) problems have a way of getting a cat owner’s attention. But GI problems are more than just inconvenient, they can be signs of serious trouble. Read on to learn about seven common GI problems in cats and what can be done about them.
Parasites are a common cause of GI problems in cats. Many kittens get roundworms from their mother by suckling milk that contains roundworm larvae. Adults can become infected by eating contaminated dirt or infected prey animals. Cats can also pick up Coccidia parasites from ingesting small amounts of dirt. Tapeworms are transmitted when cats eat fleas or a prey animals that contain tapeworm larvae. Other types of intestinal parasites (e.g., hookworms and whipworms) can also be diagnosed in cats.
Left untreated, intestinal parasites can make cats very sick, causing symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and poor growth. Tapeworms are the exception and can be viewed more as a nuisance. Unlike other worms that cannot usually be seen with the naked eye, tapeworm segments are often visible around a cat’s rear end, where they cause irritation and “scooting.”
Getting rid of intestinal parasites is fairly straightforward. First the parasite has to be identified (often through a microscopic fecal examination performed by a veterinarian) and then the cat should be treated with an appropriate deworming medication per label instructions.
Hairballs might be common, but they are not normal. Hairballs generally form either because a cat is shedding excessively because of a skin problem or due to gastrointestinal dysfunction.
If your cat only brings up the occasional hairball and seems perfectly healthy otherwise, home treatment is a reasonable first step:
- Change your cat’s diet to a formula with fewer potential allergens. Gastrointestinal inflammation caused by food allergies and/or inflammatory bowel disease is to blame for many chronic cases of hairballs.
- Add fiber to the diet to “sweep” hair through the GI tract.
- Try a hairball gel that makes swallowed hair less likely to clump together.
- Brush your cat more frequently to remove excess hair.
If none of these solutions work, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Constipation occurs when feces become too large and/or hard to be pushed out of the colon. Constipated cats typically strain in the litterbox but produce little in the way of feces. Any stool you do see is often dry, firm and small.
Constipation can be caused by dehydration, poor gastrointestinal motility, pain, neurologic problems, obstruction of the large intestine, or by a condition called megacolon that has an unknown origin. Treatment involves identifying and correcting any underlying disorders and removing the impacted feces either with enemas or manual removal under sedation. Never give your cat an enema at home without first consulting with a veterinarian because some types of enemas can be toxic for cats.
If your cat is at risk for recurring constipation, increasing water intake, dietary changes (e.g., high fiber, low fiber or hypoallergenic foods), weight management, and increased exercise can help decrease the frequency or severity of episodes.
Cats are curious, and some will put just about anything in their mouths… and then swallow. If those objects are small or at least partially digestible, they can travel through the gastrointestinal tract without incident, but in a worst-case scenario, they become stuck somewhere along the way. Gastrointestinal foreign bodies typically cause poor appetite, vomiting, and discomfort in cats.
A veterinarian who suspects that a cat has swallowed something inappropriate will usually take abdominal X-rays to look for evidence. The foreign body may be obvious, but more frequently we can only see hints that there is something in there that shouldn’t be. Sometimes, removing a gastrointestinal foreign body can be done with an endoscope, but in other cases exploratory surgery is necessary to remove the object and repair the damage it has done.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes symptoms that are seen with many gastrointestinal problems — vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and/or poor appetite — but because IBD can only be identified with a biopsy, it can be challenging to diagnose.
IBD is caused by some combination of immune dysfunction, food allergies, bacterial overgrowth, metabolic disease, food intolerance, parasites, environmental stress, and/or genetics. Often a cat’s symptoms are mild and/or intermittent to begin with but get worse with time.
Treatment for IBD involves feeding a hypoallergenic diet and, if that is insufficient, suppressing the immune system. A veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics, corticosteroids, chlorambucil, and other medications depending on a cat’s response. Some cases of IBD respond beautifully to treatment, but others, unfortunately, do not and end up being fatal.
Some cats simply can’t eat certain ingredients that are commonly included in cat foods without becoming sick. Cats with food allergies may have gastrointestinal problems, but itchiness and skin lesions are often the primary concern for pet owners. On the other hand, when a cat has a food intolerance, symptoms are generally limited to the gastrointestinal tract (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gassiness).
In either case, avoiding the offending ingredient(s) is the best way to manage the condition. If you perform a rigorous food trial (8-12 weeks of feeding NOTHING but water and a prescription, hypoallergenic diet) and your cat’s symptoms disappear, you can simply continue feeding that food or slowly reintroduce traditional ingredients to determine which one(s) your cat reacts to so you can avoid them in the future. Some cases of food allergy (but not intolerance) may also require treatment with an immunosuppressive drug like prednisolone, budesonide, or chlorambucil.
Lymphoma (also called lymphosarcoma) and other types of cancer may be diagnosed in cats with symptoms of gastrointestinal disease. Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and palliative care (therapies that make patients feel better but don’t directly address the underlying disease) will often prolong and improve the quality of life for cats with cancer. But with time, euthanasia or hospice care typically becomes necessary to prevent suffering.
Health conditions other than those mentioned here can also be to blame for a cat’s GI problems. Talk to a veterinarian if you have any concerns about your cat’s health.