The diet of our domestic cats rarely resembles that of their wild relatives. As a result, the change in cat food since they started living with humans is a key factor in many cats being constantly plagued by digestion problems. However, illnesses, contamination and other issues can also cause diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation!
Digestion problems in cats
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As is the case with us humans, digestion for cats starts in the mouth cavity. The sharper teeth break up food in a manner conducive to digestion, whilst the molars take larger bites. The food is then mingled with saliva formed when eating, which helps to initially break it down and facilitates transport through the oesophagus. From there, the food ends up in the stomach and is mixed through movements of the muscular stomach wall. Gastric acid kills bacteria and other pathogens with an acidic pH value, whilst proteins are predigested.
In the small intestine, the food is broken down into its nutritional components. Digestive juices from the liver and pancreas help to dissect food into smaller pieces, thereby allowing them to be absorbed into the blood by the intestinal mucosa. Afterwards, nutrients are transferred from the blood to the liver and from there reach the respective somatic cells.
Indigestible components are now redirected to the colon and are ultimately excreted in the faeces. This is one of the last passages of the nutritional components through the cat's body: bacteria break down indigestible food residues. Vitamins and additional minerals that are still present are filtered out. Everything else is excreted in the faeces.
Did you know that meat is highly digestible, unlike vegetable-based food? The higher the proportion of vegetable-based food in the diet of a species, the longer its intestine. Hence, carnivorous cats have extremely short intestines in comparison to omnivores. On average, the human intestine amounts to six times the body size, whereas it is only three times the body size of a cat.
Digestion is a highly complex process. All the organs work together to ensure that nutrients are utilised optimally and that indigestible components can be excreted easily with the cat's faeces. However, this doesn't always run smoothly – allergies, poor food choice, illnesses, medication or chronic stress can lead to your cat's digestion going haywire.
Cats know what's good for them! They prefer food with a composition corresponding to that of mice, therefore ready foods don't always meet these requirements. An insufficient composition with a high proportion of unusable carbohydrates, substandard components such as sugar, by-products or allergenic ingredients like soya and grain are often the cause of unregulated digestion. There are multiple symptoms that can range from allergies to constipation, diarrhoea and vomiting. If your cat has digestion problems, it's always worth examining its food closely! If symptoms aren't severe, a change of food can often solve the problem. Appropriate food is generally the best way to prevent digestion problems, but it is no guarantee. If the cat suffers from severe diarrhoea, no longer experiences bowel movements or is clearly in pain, the first step should be going to the vet.
If cats have problems with constipation, this is usually painful for them. Hard faeces can be suffused with blood, so the cat often tries to avoid bowel movements altogether. Constipation can be an indication of an underlying illness or of intolerance to cat food. The solution is often quite straightforward: many cats don't drink enough. Cats are desert animals by nature and predominantly receive their required water intake through food. They only drink water when it's really necessary. Try to encourage your cat to drink water, especially if it primarily eats dry food. Drinking fountains or water bowls spread across the entire home are an easy and effective method!
The opposite problem can occur too. Diarrhoea is unpleasant for both the cat and the owner! As with constipation, diarrhoea can have multiple causes. If symptoms are acute and develop suddenly, you should bear in mind food poisoning, viral illnesses or contaminated food. Parasites such as worms or microorganisms like giardia can equally be the cause – here your vet would generally examine the faeces. Viral infections such as panleucopenia can also bring on diarrhoea!
Chronic diarrhoea can be brought upon by stress, but also chronic illnesses or changes such as a thickened intestinal wall.
As a general rule, if diarrhoea leads to vomiting, the general condition is poor or the episode lasts longer than one or two days, you should go to the vet immediately! The same applies as soon as your cat appears lethargic or shows additional problems such as fever, weakness or shivers. Kittens get dehydrated very quickly, so please go to the vet of your choice straightaway.
Cat owners frequently see their pets vomit in connection to withdrawing hair balls, often after indulging in cat grass. If they vomit just once, you don't have to go straight to the vet, but you should pay close attention if the cat vomits food or on a regular basis. As with diarrhoea, cats lose a lot of fluid and can soon become dehydrated. Food that has gone off is one of the most harmless reasons, but food poisoning or acute illnesses can also lead to nausea or vomiting. Your vet will assess your cat's general condition, give it saline solution if necessary to stabilise it and can provide relief through medication. You can then work together on optimal treatment.