Digestive issues in cats: Causes and how to help

Understand the most common digestive issues in cats, their root causes, and how to help them stay comfortable and healthy as they age.

Digestive Issues in Cats: Causes and How To Help
minute read

With agility, grace, and a bit of attitude, cats are like no other animal — and they also have a unique gastrointestinal system that makes them different from humans. 

While cat owners might have no issue dealing with the occasional hairball or cleaning the litter box, cats can often encounter digestive issues that lead more more serious health problems. If you have cats or you’re considering cat ownership, you’ll want to know how their digestive system works and some common issues to watch for, like food allergies.

This article will give you the blueprint to identifying common gastrointestinal issues in cats and pinpoint underlying causes to help them stay comfortable and happy. Not all these factors are within our control, but there are steps you can take to keep your cat healthy and live their best life for longer.

How does digestion work for cats?

A cat’s digestive system is similar to that of other mammals, with a rapid metabolism and efficient system for breaking down nutrients. Cats are carnivorous, meaning they are evolved to consume proteins from meats. This makes a cat’s digestive system unique in certain ways, but it also makes them vulnerable to certain digestive issues. It also means owners must choose the right cat food while limiting certain table scraps. 

Like most animals, the cat’s digestive journey starts in the mouth, with sharp teeth shredding apart pieces of food for more effective ingestion. As teeth tear food apart, enzymes in saliva assist in the physical breakdown of larger food pieces while also priming the stomach to release gastric juices. 

As food makes its way down the esophagus and enters the stomach, it is mixed with acidic substances like hydrochloric acid and other enzymes. Cats have a more acidic stomach than omnivorous animals, which helps to break down tougher materials like bone, raw meat, and other nutrient sources from animals. 

Once the stomach partially digests the food, it makes its way through the digestive tract to the small intestine, where the process of nutrient absorption begins. Here, the pancreas and liver contribute more enzymes and bile, helping to break down food as intestinal walls intake nutrients. Like in humans, the pancreas produces insulin to regulate blood sugar and ensure the cat’s metabolism stays in check during digestion.

After the small intestine absorbs much of the nutrients from food, the large intestine absorbs any remaining water and electrolytes. In this final stage, waste is concentrated and prepared for excretion. The total process is relatively quick compared to other animals, taking anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. However, factors like food quality, age, and other health issues can make this process shorter or longer. 

What are some common cat digestive problems?

Now that you have a general idea of how a cat’s digestive system works, we can begin to look at some common problems that cats may encounter during digestion. 

Cat owners may be unable to pinpoint the root cause immediately, but knowing more about these issues will help them identify patterns and make the right choice for their pet’s health.

Foreign body ingestion

Even the most careful cat owners can’t keep an eye on their pets 24 hours of the day. Curious cats, especially young ones, can consume small items around the house, which can get lodged in their esophagus or make their way into the stomach.

This can cause serious problems if the object is sharp, or lead to other digestive issues like blockage or disruption. Pet owners should look for signs like lethargy, loss of appetite, and weight loss. While cats may successfully pass foreign objects via excretion, medical intervention may be required.


Cats are notoriously tidy creatures, and they spend hours grooming themselves by licking fur to clean it. Small amounts of hair may be ingested during this process, which can accumulate and result in hairballs forming in the stomach.

In most cases, hairballs are not a cause for concern for cat owners, but they can raise alarms if a cat’s behavior changes significantly. Owners will want to look for signs of discomfort, lethargy, or loss of appetite that indicate a problem. Cats will typically cough up hairballs on their own, but owners will want to monitor behavior closely to avoid further issues.

Food and seasonal allergies

Because cats evolved to consume meat only, they have sensitive stomachs and may be more prone to food and seasonal allergies. Cats may accidentally consume foods that disagree with their digestive system, leading to issues like vomiting, diarrhea, and possible skin problems. 

Owners will want to keep a close eye on their cats' diets to ensure they eat the right foods daily in the proper amounts. Cats should also not be fed table scraps — even meat — as their systems are sensitive and may be unable to deal with unfamiliar types of food. 

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

IBD is a chronic condition, characterized by the inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. There isn’t a consensus on what causes IBD in cats, but research shows it’s likely related to an autoimmune response or an imbalance of gut bacteria

IBD can result in weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, and general discomfort for cats, so owners should look for these patterns and consider changing cat food types if symptoms persist. In many cases, medical treatment is required, including antibiotics or other interventions from a veterinarian.


Cats may have issues passing stool if they are dehydrated, have a change in diet, or experiencing other health problems. Constipation is particularly common in older cats, so owners should keep an eye on the litter box to ensure cats are going regularly. 

Certain cat foods, such as wet food that can be processed more easily, are designed to go easier on the digestive system. While food changes can make a difference, there may be other reasons for constipation as well, such as gut inflammation or gut flora issues.


Gastroenteritis is similar to IBD but is typically caused by bacterial infections caused by viruses. These cases tend to be more acute and last for a shorter duration but can be disruptive and uncomfortable for cats nonetheless. 

Cat owners should monitor their cat's behavior and take them to a vet if symptoms continue for days or weeks. Thankfully, many cases of gastroenteritis can be dealt with using prescription treatments. These episodes can turn chronic, however, so be sure to monitor your cats' health even if they’ve overcome gastroenteritis once.

Pancreas problems

The pancreas does a lot of the heavy lifting in a cat’s digestive process, but it’s a sensitive organ that is vulnerable to certain conditions and problems. In pancreatitis cases, the pancreas becomes inflamed and can cause abdominal pain or swelling. Unfortunately, the causes are difficult to pinpoint, making this a potentially dangerous concern for cats. 

If a cat has a history of pancreas issues or shows signs of abdominal discomfort, owners should not hesitate to bring them to the vet and get ahead of the problem. 

Worms and parasites

Common parasites include tapeworms, roundworms, and hookworms, all of which can make their way into a cat’s system via food or interaction with their environment. These parasites vary in the health issues they cause, and can typically be dealt with using medications and cleanses.

Owners should look for any sudden changes in appetite or rapid weight loss, as this may indicate the presence of a worm. A strong gut microbiome and a consistent diet are usually a good first line of defense against worms, as these will fortify the immune system and help fight off infection.

How can pet owners improve their cat’s digestive health?

With a better understanding of a cat’s digestive system, you now know the lay of the land and what to expect. 

Now, let’s talk about some practical steps you can take to improve your cat’s digestive health and get ahead of common problems. This list includes some proactive diet, nutrition, and lifestyle types, as well as how to respond when certain issues arise. 

Diet and hydration

A cat’s diet is relatively simple and typically doesn’t require much adjustment. Wet or dry food tends to digest well, and most cats aren’t especially picky when it comes to dinner time. 

On the other hand, owners may encounter obstacles with feeding their cats regularly, using consistent portions, or allowing table scraps from time to time. These factors might not seem like a big deal from our perspective, but they can add up over time for a cat and lead to digestive disturbances down the road. 

Consistency is key when feeding cats, whether that’s using a fixed schedule or sticking to the same food types for months at a time. The same goes for hydration, so make sure cats have plenty of fresh water readily available and that they are incentivized to drink regularly.

Hairball management

Hairballs happen, but what can owners do to help their cats process or cough them up to prevent digestive problems? Certain hairball management control diets have been shown to work in some cases, using higher amounts of fiber to stimulate intestinal motility and clear out hair from the system.

High-quality proteins can also help cats reduce hairballs by supporting the health of their coats. Healthy fur is more resilient and less likely to fall off during grooming, meaning a cat will deal with less hair buildup in the stomach over time. Owners may also consider using wet food formulas or encouraging cats to drink more water, as proper hydration can make a difference in hairball management as well. 

Regular exercise

Cats showcase a wide array of different personality traits, and some are certainly more active than others. Even if your cat isn’t especially active or energetic, you can set aside time for indoor activities that will stimulate their metabolism and keep the digestive system moving along.

Certain cats simply need a bit of encouragement to be more active, and cat owners can think of inventive ways to get them off the couch. Active cats tend to be healthier and happier and live longer lives, with fewer digestive issues as well. Plus, it’s an opportunity for you to bond with your cat in new ways, which is a win-win for all. 

Preventive care

Regular wellness exams help ensure that digestive problems are caught and addressed before they worsen. Routine bloodwork and checkups can make sure that your furry friend is feeling their best.

The same goes for vaccinations, parasite control, dental care, and general grooming. All these factors add to the equation of overall cat health, and each one plays a role in maintaining good digestion and metabolism. 

Just one or two trips to the vet each year can make all the difference, so never hesitate to schedule and follow through on appointments.

Stress and lifestyle factors

Cats can get stressed and experience anxiety just like humans, and this can have a negative effect on digestive processes and overall health. Owners can help alleviate stress by cultivating a calm, relaxed home environment where cats can feel safe and peaceful throughout the day. 

Some cats may feel better exploring the outdoors occasionally, while others prefer to stay in the house at all times. Certain cats are more social with other animals, and some enjoy alone time more than anything else. Owners should pay attention to the factors that make their cats happiest and more relaxed, and facilitate a lifestyle for their cats that helps them thrive. 

Health and behavioral monitoring

Many of the health issues we’ve discussed so far have overlapping symptoms and signs, so it’s not always clear what the root cause may be. However, cat owners know when something isn’t quite right with their pet, and they should stay tuned to subtle behavioral shifts that indicate an underlying problem. 

For example, an active cat may start to move more slowly or have trouble getting up steps, while a mellow cat might act erratically or nervous. The obvious symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or clear discomfort should be acted on immediately. Cat owners should use their best judgment to determine when something is wrong and if urgent treatment is required.

Gut microbiome support

A cat’s microbiome may not be as complex as that of us humans, but these colonies of bacteria are still crucial. However, most cats don’t get the probiotic support they need from their everyday diets, which is why our Broad Spectrum Probiotic CBD Pet Chews are a great option for the modern cat owner.

These chews are formulated by vets with guidance from the National Animal Supplement Council and feature natural premium hemp extract, plus the highest quality probiotic species for a thriving gut. They also include health extras like fiber-rich pumpkin powder, the amino acid glutamine, and prebiotic inulin to further support bacteria in the colon

These pet chews are the perfect supplement for cats of all ages and health backgrounds, making them a no-brainer for smart cat owners who want the best for their pets. 

The bottom line

Now that we know more than ever about cats and how their bodies work, it’s our responsibility to care for them in the best way possible. 

That means knowing common digestive problems, responding smartly to their issues, and taking proactive steps to help your cat live a longer, happier life. With these tips and our Broad Spectrum Probiotic CBD Pet Chews, you can confidently level up as a pet owner and give your cat the life they deserve. 


Perspectives and advances in probiotics and the gut microbiome in companion animals | NIH

Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? | NIH

The Effects of Nutrition on the Gastrointestinal Microbiome of Cats and Dogs: Impact on Health and Disease | NIH

Hair balls in cats: a normal nuisance or a sign that something is wrong? | NIH