How To Feed a Cat With a Sensitive Stomach

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A grey cat with a white chest sits alert, looking at something behind the camera. Two pet parents sit behind, stroking the cat

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Have you noticed that your cat keeps being sick or they sometimes seem off their food? You may have noticed that they have occasional runny poo or seem uncomfortable after eating. These could all be signs that your cat has a sensitive stomach. But what does that mean and what can you do to help?

What is a sensitive stomach?

The term ‘sensitive stomach’ really just means an animal that has frequent gastrointestinal upsets. This could be vomiting, retching, diarrhoea, colitis or, in cats, even passing frequent hairballs. There are lots of different causes of a sensitive stomach, so which food you use to tackle it will depend very much on the underlying cause.

Reading the signs

All cats, like us humans, get the occasional one-off tummy issue. Maybe your cat caught a mouse that didn’t go down well. But if you notice that your cat has a gastrointestinal upset every few days, or even every couple of weeks, then it’s best to see your vet to make sure there isn’t a medical issue. If your cat goes out a lot, you might not notice the overt signs, so always try to weigh your cat every month, either at home on your scales or at the vet practice. Noticing weight loss is very important for spotting disease in cats at an early stage. This habit also helps you spot if your cat is becoming too fat, which can be just as bad!

What might cause a cat’s sensitive stomach?

The most common causes of a sensitive stomach in cats are:

  • Food allergies or intolerances.
  • Stress. This is particularly important in cats, especially those living with other cats or kept solely indoors. Stress may be an important factor in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in dogs and cats, as well as humans. This isn’t fully understood at this time but research is ongoing.
  • Parasites
  • Infections.

When you go to the vet, stool samples and even videos of your cat being sick can be really helpful if you can get them. Your vet may want to do various tests, including blood tests, stool analysis, ultrasound or x-rays. In some cases, biopsy may be required.

Feeding a cat with a sensitive stomach

If your vet finds a definite underlying cause like parasites, they may simply need to administer treatment. If there is no apparent cause, it may be that your cat will need a change of food. Many cats with a ‘sensitive stomach’ may have what’s called Food Responsive Enteropathy (FRE). These are cases which, as the name suggests, get better when the cat is fed a food that supports digestive health. It may be that your cat has been on a lower-quality food they have trouble digesting, or one that has too much fat for their body to tolerate. Foods that support gut health have high-quality, highly digestible ingredients. They contain omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, along with great sources of prebiotic fibres, which nourish the ‘good’ bacteria that keep the gut microbiome and immune system healthy.

If your cat doesn’t get better with a change of food, your vet may try antibiotics or steroids, or suggest an elimination diet. These foods are aimed at cats that are suspected of having a food allergy or intolerance. Adverse food reactions (the term that covers both allergies and intolerances) are usually caused by a certain ingredient in the food, such as a meat protein. Your vet may give you a food that contains hydrolysed proteins, which are broken down to a size that is too small for the body to recognise as allergenic. Your vet may also suggest a food that contains ingredients that your cat has never eaten before. With these elimination trials, it is important to feed ONLY the food your vet has given you and no titbits or table scraps. Usually a trial for gut issues lasts 2-4 weeks, but your vet will explain it all to you. Your cat may need to stay on the special food for life if an intolerance is found.

Your vet may recommend wet food for your cat or a mix of wet and dry. Stomach upsets can quickly make cats dehydrated and wet foods are a great way to increase water intake. Also, lots of cats really love some wet food in their diet, so they may be a good way to get your cat eating well again. Follow your vet’s advice and always ask about how to transition your cat from their old food to the new one.

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