By Liz Bales, DVM
Does your cat have a sensitive stomach? Do they consistently vomit or cough up hairballs? Believe it or not, hairballs aren’t normal for cats; their bodies are made to pass the hair that they ingest from grooming.
So these could be signs that your cat is sensitive to something in their food.
Gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances are commonly caused by poorly digestible foods, food allergies or food additives/flavorings/preservatives.
Many times, a diet that’s formulated to address your cat’s sensitive stomach can ease and even resolve the problem. But it’s important to not immediately jump to changing your cat’s diet without getting your vet’s input.
Here’s what you should do if your cat has a sensitive stomach and how you can help them find the right diet.
Talk With Your Veterinarian to Rule Out Other Medical Issues
Vomiting can be a sign of many different illnesses, not just a sensitivity to food. And coughing up a hairball can look very similar to general coughing and sneezing in a cat—which could actually be signs of feline asthma.
If your cat is vomiting food or hairballs once a month or more, or is also losing weight, a veterinary visit is recommended.
You should also try to get a video of your cat when they are exhibiting these behaviors so that your veterinarian can see what you see at home.
At the vet’s office, your veterinarian will check for clues as to what is causing the stomach upset. They may recommend diagnostic tests like blood work, X-rays or an ultrasound to find the cause of the GI upset.
By ruling out other medical issues, you can make sure they get right medical treatments for any underlying issues.
How to Find the Best Food for Your Cat’s Sensitive Stomach
Once you’ve dealt with any other health issues, you can work with your vet to figure out the best food for your cat’s sensitive stomach.
Your vet will be able to guide you towards foods that fit your cat’s nutritional requirements, while you can narrow it down by your cat’s food preferences to find the perfect match.
Here are some options your vet might suggest for finding a food for your cat’s sensitive stomach.
Start With a Diet Trial
Once your cat gets a clean bill of health from the veterinarian, a diet trial is the logical next step. Diet trials are a way to narrow down your cat’s food options until you find a food that suits their sensitive stomach.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” diet for every cat. Your cat will have an individual response to each diet. So, work with your veterinarian to find the most suitable food for your cat’s needs.
It can take up to three or four months for your cat to clear the old diet from their system so that you can completely evaluate the new diet.
What to Look For in the New Diet
The best foods for a cat with a sensitive stomach will be highly digestible and contain no irritating ingredients. Highly digestible diets have moderate to low fat, moderate protein and moderate carbohydrates.
Many of these diets have additives that improve intestinal health, like soluble fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and increased levels of antioxidant vitamins, and they contain no gluten, lactose, food coloring or preservatives.
Try a Hypoallergenic Diet
Cats can experience food allergies that cause gastrointestinal upset. Of all the components of the diet, the protein source is the most likely to cause food allergies.
Your cat can be allergic to any protein that they have been exposed to. For example, rabbit and chicken may both cause a food allergy. But, if your cat has never eaten rabbit before, their immune system hasn’t been sensitized to it, and they are unlikely to be allergic to it.
Some studies show that beef, chicken and fish are the most likely to cause allergies. The best cat food for helping cats dealing with food sensitivities for certain protein allergies are hypoallergenic diets.
Types of Hypoallergenic Diets for Cats
There are three main types of hypoallergenic diets:
- Limited ingredient
- Veterinary prescription food with a novel protein
- Hydrolyzed protein
Limited ingredient diets typically contain only one protein source and one carbohydrate source, and they can be purchased without a prescription, like Natural Balance L.I.D. Chicken & Green Pea Formula grain-free canned cat food. However, these diets are not regulated to ensure that they don’t have cross-contamination.
For more highly allergic cats, veterinary prescription diets with novel animal proteins contain a single-source protein and are produced in a facility that prevents cross-contamination.
Hydrolyzed protein diets, which also require a veterinary prescription, break down the protein to a size that’s less likely to be recognized by the immune system, like Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Hydrolyzed Protein HP dry cat food.
Try Simply Changing the Form of Cat Food
Your cat’s stomach sensitivity may improve by just changing the type of food that you feed.
For example, if your cat is experiencing stomach sensitivity on dry food, it is reasonable to try a low-carb, higher-protein canned food diet, like Royal Canin Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Moderate Calorie canned cat food or Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric Formula canned cat food.
Likewise, if you are feeding wet food, you may do a trial of a dry food diet with a dry food like Royal Canin Sensitive Digestion dry cat food.
Try a Different Feeding Routine
Cats that eat large meals are more likely to vomit very soon after eating—tongue-in-cheek, we call this “scarf and barf.”
With a stomach the size of a ping-pong ball, cats, in particular, are physiologically and anatomically designed to eat small, frequent meals. They are designed to hunt, catch and play with many small meals a day. Eating one large bowl of food a day can lead to frequent regurgitation.
In general, small, frequent meals are best. This results in less gastric retention of food and increases the amount of food that is digested and absorbed.
You can recreate this natural feeding behavior with the award-winning, veterinary recommended Doc & Phoebe’s indoor hunting cat feeder kit.
Instead of filling the bowl twice a day, use the portion filler to put the food into each of the three mice and hide them around the house. This natural feeding style provides portion control, activity and stress reduction that has shown to decrease or eliminate vomiting.
By: Dr. Elizabeth Bales, DVM