Gastroenteritis in Cats - What You Need To Know

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A grey cat lays on its owner's lap with eyes barely open while receiving a torso scratch

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The term “gastroenteritis” simply means an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It’s usually pretty obvious if your cat is suffering from gastroenteritis because they may be sick or have watery, soft or bloody poo. Although diarrhoea may be difficult to spot if your cat goes outside to go to the toilet, vomiting is usually very noticeable because it takes them as much by surprise as it does you.

As you can imagine, especially if you’ve ever experienced this yourself, having gastroenteritis is pretty unpleasant for cats. Gastroenteritis can be acute (sudden and short-lived) or chronic, which means it goes on for more than two to three weeks. These longer cases are termed chronic enteropathies (CE), the most common form being Food Responsive Enteropathy (FRE). Chronic enteropathies are also sometimes called Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

In this article we’ll be looking at the common causes of acute gastroenteritis in cats. Acute gastroenteritis isn’t always a veterinary emergency and some cases may get better on their own, but there are times where action is needed. In this article we’ll look at the most common causes and what you can do to help your poorly companion.

Common causes of acute gastroenteritis

  1. Dietary indiscretion. Dogs are the poster children for raiding the bin, but cats can fall victim of this too. Lots of cats sneakily steal food from worktops or may eat an unfortunate creature that doesn’t go down too well. These kinds of issues usually resolve pretty quickly on their own. This could also happen if you changed your cat’s food recently but didn’t transition the new food in over several days.

  2. Viral infections can cause acute gastroenteritis in almost any animal, including cats. This is just one of the reasons to keep your cat’s vaccinations up to date.

  3. Parasites, especially in large numbers, can be problematic for the intestines. Talk to your vet to make sure your parasite control is adequate for your cat’s lifestyle. For example, cats that hunt and eat their prey may need worming more frequently than a sedentary house cat.

  4. Food allergies. These can be true allergies or intolerances.

  5. Other medical issues. Gastroenteritis can be caused by other diseases such as kidney failure or an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).

Should you worry about cat gastroenteritis?

There’s no one answer to this question. It all depends on the lifestage of your cat, what other problems they have, if any, and how severe the gastroenteritis is. As we said, many cases resolve on their own, so if your cat is sick a few times and is a little miserable for a day, you can probably afford to wait 24-48 hours and see if it settles. If any gastrointestinal upset goes on for more than 48 hours, though, you should see your vet.

One of the biggest worries is dehydration from vomiting particularly, but also diarrhoea. If your cat is vomiting very frequently, seems to be in pain, or is depressed and inactive, seek veterinary attention straight away. A simple test you can do for dehydration is the ‘skin tent’ test. When an animal is well-hydrated, if you gently pull the skin on the back of the neck up and let go of it, it will ping smoothly back into place. If your cat is a little dehydrated, it will be slower to return to position. In severe dehydration, it stays poking up like a tent, hence the name of the test.

If your cat gets better on their own but you notice that they have regular bouts of upsets, you should also see your vet as there may well be an underlying cause.

If your cat needs veterinary attention, it’s really useful if you can take a stool sample (your cat’s!) with you. Your vet can test for parasites, infection and the presence of things like blood. Depending on the initial clinical exam, your vet may want to:

  1. Give a highly digestible, high-quality, digestive support food to your cat for a few days to help the gut heal.

  2. Treat for any parasitic or bacterial disease that is found.

  3. Do blood tests to rule out other diseases.

  4. In cases of dehydration your cat may need to stay in the hospital to have intravenous fluids and supportive care.

  5. In some cases, if the signs of gastroenteritis become chronic or recurrent, x-rays, imaging and even biopsies may be necessary.

Fundamentally, you know your cat better than anyone. If ever you are concerned, please don’t hesitate to ring your vet. We would always rather be safe than sorry and, as with all things health-related, the sooner you get help the better.

Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA