There are a number of conditions which can cause tummy upsets in cats. Digestive disturbances are actually one of the commonest reasons for owners to take their cats to the vet. These are rarely serious, but they can be worrying for the owner and unpleasant for the cat. Here we take a look at how you can recognise that your cat has an upset stomach, what conditions can cause it, and what can be done about it.
If a cat uses a litter tray all the time, as in the case of indoor cats, it is quite easy to recognise when he or she has diarrhoea or some other problem in that area. But cats can be very furtive about their toilet habits, so if your cat goes outside, even into a fully enclosed garden, any problem may go undetected for a while. But other signs may indicate that your cat has a digestive problem, such as loss of appetite, loss of weight, or persistent vomiting. If this happens, it is a good idea to take your cat to the vet sooner rather than later. But don't panic; it is rarely very urgent. Unless your cat seems very ill, it is probably safe to simply keep an eye on him or her for 24 hours. As with people, these problems may simply put themselves right. But if the stomach upset continues, do take your cat to the vet. It will help your vet immensely if you note down as much as possible of what is happening, such as how long there has been a problem and if it has been continual, what symptoms you have seen, if your cat seems to have lost weight, the consistency of the cat's motions, if there is blood in the cat's faeces, and if he is eating and drinking normally. Also, let your vet know if the cat has eaten anything out of the ordinary, whether a change in diet, or house plants or other items he or she has found and chewed.
As with people, many dietary stomach upsets are minor, and may put themselves right without veterinary intervention. For instance, many cats react badly to a change in diet, so if you introduce a new food to your cat, do so slowly. Some cats do not respond well to rich food, like some people – I have one cat who vomits if I buy him something extra tasty for a treat, if I give him more than a very little of it.
Many infectious agents can cause chronic diarrhoea, though vomiting is less common. Bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter can cause food poisoning in cats as well as people. With similar symptoms. There are also protozoa – single-celled organisms – which can cause long term inflammation, particularly of the large intestine.
Unlike dogs, cats are usually pretty careful of what they eat. However, all sorts of things have been fished out of cats' stomachs – bits of bone, knitting wool, and so on. If an object causes and obstruction, signs of vomiting will usually be severe and require prompt veterinary care.
This term is used to describe three conditions which are commonly seen in combination, and may well b e different manifestations of disease with the same underlying cause. The first is cholangiohepatitis – an inflammation of the liver. The second is pancreatitis, which may cause low grade digestive upsets, but in its most severe form can be a lot more serious. Finally there is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is a very important cause of chronic vomiting and/or diarrhoea. This will sometimes respond to dietary control, but more often requires control with anti-inflammatory drugs.
It can be difficult to differentiate IBD from lymphoma, a form of cancer which can sometimes cause a diffuse infiltration along the length of the small intestine. There are other tumours which can cause blockage of the bowel and thus lead to vomiting.
Vets see many cases of cats with intestinal problems, and quickly become adept at picking up cases that require immediate attention. Most cases can be treated conservatively at first, rather than running a battery of expensive tests that probably won't really be needed. There are actually very few cases that require antibiotics. Symptomatic treatment with drugs to control vomiting and calm the bowel, combined with a diet that is designed to be easily absorbed, will often be all that is required. Fluids only, then food little and often, is usually the order of the day. Fluids are particularly important if the cat is vomiting, to ensure that he or she does not become dehydrated.
If this is not enough, your vet might then prescribe a liquid wormer which is active against bowel parasites, a probiotic powder which is added to food, and a veterinary-prescribed diet which is easy to digest and provides the correct balance of nutrients.
Cats with severe signs may need further tests, and possibly intravenous fluids. Diagnosis may involve tests such as faecal analysis for parasites and harmful bacteria, blood tests to check for organ malfunction or other disorders, diagnostic imaging such as X-rays and ultrasound to look for foreign bodies or tumours, or endoscopy to look inside the bowel itself.
Some diseases, such as IBD, have no specific test to confirm them, and can often only be diagnosed by excluding all other causes.
Digestive problems are very common and usually very straightforward. So if your cat has diarrhoea or vomiting, don't panic, as many of us do if anything is wrong with our beloved cats. However, don't ignore it either. Sometimes the problem can be much more seriouis or resistant to therapy, and in those cases it is vital for your vet to follow a rational process to diagnose the cause of the problem and then if possible start the correct treatment.