Reviewed for accuracy on August 28, 2018, by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM
When you’re hit with an upset stomach, you seek sympathy from your cat while contemplating the contents of your medicine cabinet. But cat stomach issues are different. If your cat throws up, or you wake up to the nasty reality of cat diarrhea, your kitty relies on you to find out what’s wrong and how to get her back on track.
Symptoms of Cat Stomach Upset
“Symptoms of an upset stomach in a cat include licking the lips, which is a sign of nausea, vomiting and refusing to eat,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles, medical director and founder of Just Cats Clinic in Reston, Virginia. “Possibly the cat ate something it shouldn’t have, like a bug or a leaf of a plant.” Diarrhea may also develop if the problem affects the lower part of the gastrointestinal tract.
Dr. Mark Rondeau, DVM, BS, of PennVet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that while vomiting is the most visible sign of cat stomach upset, “a change in behavior, such as being less active or not interacting or hiding in unusual places—a lot of those behaviors are common in cats that may have upset stomachs.”
And no, those hairballs that suddenly appear on the new living room carpet are not the same thing as when your cat throws up. “This is an extremely common myth,” Dr. Arguelles says. “There’s a distinction between a hairball—which looks like a piece of poop made out of hair—and vomit, which may have hair in it along with partially digested food or bile.”
Dr. Rondeau adds that if a cat occasionally hurls a hairball—ejecting hair that isn’t processed out through the ‘other end’—it’s not something to worry about, but that “the reasons for feline vomiting can include a long list of things.”
Possible Causes of Cat Stomach Upset
Dr. Arguelles says frequent causes of cat stomach upset include switching cat food too frequently as well as intestinal parasites. Dr. Rondeau adds that parasites are especially common in young cats and kittens.
Both Dr. Arguelles and Dr. Rondeau say that food intolerance, food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also commonly lead to an upset cat stomach. More serious causes, such as gastrointestinal cancers, kidney disease and hyperthyroidism, can also result in vomiting.
If you are worried that your cat is sick, seek veterinary care immediately, says Dr. Arguelles.
How To Cure Cat Stomach Upset
Detecting what’s behind your cat’s vomiting is crucial, and that means a trip to the vet. A cat who throws up multiple times in a day or who has not eaten in 48 hours needs to see a vet immediately.
Dr. Arguelles says, “Veterinarians have anti-nausea medication that can be given as an injection or as an oral tablet (Cerenia)” as well as medications to help with diarrhea and poor appetite. A temporary switch to a bland diet may be recommended until the cat’s symptoms subside.
In some cases, a veterinarian will recommend heartworm medicine for cats or a prescription dewormer for cats. “A cat that is vomiting more than once per month should be examined by a veterinarian, who will deworm—or recommend your cat be on monthly prevention with Revolution, Advantage Multi or Heartgard,” says Dr. Arguelles. Many heartworm medicines for cats also kill some of the intestinal parasites that can cause cat stomach upset.
She says a vet may also recommend abdominal radiographs (X-rays) to check for an obstruction, foreign body or other problem, or lab work to seek underlying metabolic causes of vomiting, such as kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.
“In cases that have normal labs and radiographs, your vet may then recommend an abdominal ultrasound to visualize the layers and thickness of the stomach and intestines. Sometimes, we find foreign material that wasn’t visible on radiographs, other times we find thickening of the intestines and enlargement of lymph nodes—and then we are looking at either inflammatory bowel disease or gastrointestinal lymphoma,” she says. “The only way to determine which of these diseases is present is through intestinal biopsies.”
Dr. Rondeau says if your cat has just started vomiting or is suddenly “lethargic, won’t eat or is hiding, definitely bring him to the vet. But we also see a lot of cats with chronic vomiting… In those cases, maybe they aren’t lethargic, but the owners notice some vomiting and see the cat has lost weight … for those, it is definitely time to check with the vet.”
Preventing Cat Stomach Issues
Once the serious issues are ruled out, you can work on helping to avoid future cat stomach issues.
“The three things that you can do to promote good digestive health in cats are placing them on monthly prevention that deworms them for intestinal parasites, feeding them a balanced diet (not raw and not homemade), and taking them to the veterinarian at least yearly,” says Dr. Arguelles. As long as your cat is healthy, “if you are feeding a high-quality diet, your cat’s digestive health will be good.”
High-Quality Diets for Cats
Dr. Rondeau agrees that a high-quality diet is key, along with “avoiding table scraps. It is mostly about consistency for cats. If yours is happy to eat the same thing and is getting that balanced diet, don’t switch brands or flavors. We might project onto them that they are bored with whatever brand and taste, but rapid diet changes can create problems.”
When cats develop diarrhea, a diet change alone can fix the problem about half the time, explains Dr. Arguelles. “Diarrhea is frustrating in that even if we treat appropriately and make the right changes and recommendations, it can take several days to clear up.”
She recommends a vet visit if a diet change doesn’t help or if your cat is vomiting, lethargic or has other worrisome symptoms.
Prescription Cat Food
Cats with fiber-responsive diarrhea “will respond to adding fiber to the diet. You can do this by feeding Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Fiber Response cat food, a prescription cat food that includes brewers’ rice, B vitamins and psyllium husk seed, among other ingredients, or by adding canned pumpkin or Metamucil.” Nummy Tum-Tum Pure Organic Pumpkin is 100% organic pumpkin that can be mixed with dry or canned cat food to help provide some relief to your cat’s stomach.
Dr. Rondeau says that a tablespoon of pumpkin with a cat’s food is also often a recommendation for cats with constipation, but adds that “Pumpkin is fibrous, but Metamucil or similar supplements will offer more fiber per volume.”
Probiotics for Cats
Additional help for cat diarrhea may come from probiotics for cats, which Dr. Rondeau describes as “A colony of good bacteria that can populate the cat’s GI tract [and is] good for the gut health.”
Dr. Arguelles says that when the good bacteria thrive, the bad bacteria are crowded out. “Not all probiotic supplements are created equal,” she says. “The probiotics I recommend include Purina’s FortiFlora and Nutramax’s Proviable.”
Both Nutramax Proviable-DC capsules and Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets FortiFlora probiotic cat supplement contain live microorganisms, and FortiFlora includes antioxidant vitamins E, C and beta-carotene. Both can be sprinkled on, or mixed in with, your cat’s food.
Monitoring your cat’s activity and being aware of changes in her habits, as well as working closely with your vet, is the best way to promote a healthy cat stomach.
By: Kathy Blumenstock