Visit Your Vet: Does My Cat Have a Digestive Issue?

Cats can experience a number of digestive problems during their lives. Having an understanding of the signs and common causes of digestive issues in cats can help you take the best of care of your feline companion and know when it is time to contact your veterinarian.

Signs of Digestive Problems in Cats


Vomiting or regurgitation, diarrhea, and refusal to eat are the most frequently reported signs of gastrointestinal illness in cats. (Regurgitation differs from vomiting in that the former involves the rapid expulsion of undigested food or a hairball and lacks the stomach contractions that are associated with vomiting.) Other signs of digestive disorders include constipation, changes in litter box habits, defecating outside of the litter box, or signs of pain while defecating.

Common Causes of Digestive Problems in Cats

Because the underlying cause of digestive upsets can be difficult to diagnose, it is important to seek veterinary advice whenever your cat is vomiting or regurgitating, or experiences diarrhea or constipation. Several common causes include:
  • Stress. Some cats are highly sensitive to changes in their environment or living situation. Stress that is induced by sudden changes can result in diarrhea.
  • Hairballs. When cats self-groom, they inevitably swallow small amounts of hair. Swallowed hair can accumulate in the stomach and then either passes in the feces or is regurgitated. Coughing, gagging, or regurgitating shortly after consuming a meal could be signs that your cat is having trouble passing a hairball. Cats who groom frequently or are shedding may be more susceptible to hairball formation and regurgitation.
  • Intestinal parasites. Several infectious parasites can cause gastrointestinal distress in cats. Examples include roundworms, tapeworms, coccidia, Tritrichomonas and toxoplasmosis. Parasitic infestations must be treated with veterinary-prescribed medications.
  • Infectious illness. Diarrhea is a common sign of several infectious diseases in cats. Viral infections that can cause diarrhea include feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus and panleukopenia virus. Intestinal bacterial overgrowth or infection with organisms such as salmonella, E. coli, clostridia or Campylobacter also cause diarrhea in cats.
  • Diet-related problems. A sudden change in the type (dry versus wet) or brand of food that you feed your cat can lead to digestive upsets. Some cats may also develop a food intolerance or allergy that can cause gastrointestinal signs.
When to Contact Your Veterinarian

Because there are many possible underlying causes for digestive problems in cats, it is important to contact your veterinarian whenever your cat shows signs of illness. Your veterinarian can use your cat’s medical and behavioral history along with needed examinations and tests to obtain a diagnosis and provide you with treatment options.

Tips for Preventing Digestive Problems in Cats

  • Reduce stress. Minimize your cat’s stress by providing a stable living environment and by preventing unpleasant interactions and experiences. Gradually introduce new experiences to your cat, such as the introduction of a new pet, move to a new home, or lifestyle change.
  • Groom frequently. One of the easiest approaches to reducing hairball formation in your cat is through regular brushing and coat care. Brushing removes dead hairs and helps to prevent excessive hair ingestion when your cat self-grooms. In addition, many cats enjoy the attention and interaction with their owner during grooming sessions.
  • Introduce new foods gradually. If you are changing your cat’s diet, mix a small amount of the new food with the previous food, increasing the proportion of new food over a period of 7 to 10 days.
  • Visit your vet regularly. Schedule annual or biannual veterinary wellness visits for your cat. These typically include a complete physical examination along with needed vaccinations, a fecal examination for intestinal parasites, and an examination of your cat’s skin and coat for external parasites.
TIPS TO TAKE AWAY 
  1. Vomiting or regurgitation, diarrhea, and refusal to eat are the most frequently reported signs of gastrointestinal illness in cats. 
  2. Because the underlying cause of digestive upsets can be difficult to diagnose, it is important to seek veterinary advice whenever your cat is vomiting or regurgitating, or experiences diarrhea or constipation. 
  3. Your veterinarian can use your cat’s medical and behavioral history along with needed examinations and tests to obtain a diagnosis and provide you with treatment options.