Gastroenteritis in cats

Gastroenteritis can happen to cats of any age and can have many causes, from nasty viruses to stress. Most cases are resolved by adjusting what they eat for a few days, but some can be severe.

The digestive system is a long, curly tube that takes what we need from our food and excretes what is harmful. To achieve this, it needs close contact between the digestive cells and the food, and the help of many friendly bacteria. Anything that damages the digestive cells or the balance of friendly bacteria causes digestion to slow down and increases the build-up of gas and fluid.  Then the body quickly tries to get rid of the problem. This causes the usual symptoms of gastroenteritis.



What is gastroenteritis in cats?

Gastroenteritis means inflammation of the stomach and intestines. This can have many causes:

  • Stress or other disruptions to normal body function
  • Sudden changes to food, exposing the gut to things it’s not used to digest
  • Infections with viruses or bacteria. Vaccinations can protect against some of the more dangerous ones.
  • Parasites, including worms and microscopic types such as Giardia
  • Toxic or irritant plants or algae
  • Meals that are very hard to digest, for example, containing large amounts of fat, hair or bone
  • Toxic or irritant chemicals or substances
  • Internal causes, such as liver or kidney disease
  • Food intolerance, where the body cannot digest a food or starts reacting to it as if it were a dangerous infection

Some types of gastroenteritis are much more severe.


Symptoms of gastroenteritis in cats

Gastroenteritis can have a range of symptoms. The urgency of the problem often depends on how severe and frequent one or more of these symptoms are. Common symptoms are:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Urgency to poo or accidents in the house
  • Blood in the diarrhoea
  • Tummy pain, which can cause sudden changes in behaviour such as aggression or hiding
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of energy or lethargy
  • Excessive drooling



Cats at higher risk of gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis can affect cats of any age or type, although young kittens and older cats may have weaker immune systems and struggle to cope with the symptoms.

Cats that hunt are more likely to catch infections or eat things that are hard to digest.

Cats with ongoing digestive problems often develop symptoms more easily if they eat something outside of their normal diet.



Diagnosis of gastroenteritis in cats

Mild cases of gastroenteritis usually get better with treating the symptoms, so finding the cause is not always necessary. In severe cases or when things aren’t getting better, the following tests may be recommended:

  • Blood tests to check for immune response, underlying diseases and electrolyte imbalances
  • Stool tests to check for infections and parasites
  • X-rays to check for swelling of the intestines and foreign materials
  • Ultrasound scans to check mobility, shape and structure of the intestines


Vet treatment

Vet treatment of gastroenteritis in cats

If symptoms are serious, your cat will need to see a vet. Depending on what is found, the vet may recommend:

  • Fluids given on a drip into the vein to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
  • Anti-vomiting medication
  • Antacids to help the stomach heal
  • Pain medication when necessary
  • Some types of infections can be treated with antibiotics, although these are much less common than previously thought


Home treatment

Home treatment of gastroenteritis in cats

If the symptoms are mild, or once they have improved with treatment at the vet practice, a few things can be done at home to help with recovery.

  • If vomiting has been a problem, a short period (4-12 hours, depending on age and other factors) on an empty stomach may help things settle. Keep them rested and encourage them to drink small amounts of fresh water little and often.
  • Small, frequent meals and an easy to digest diet for a few days will help the healing of the gut while reducing the symptoms. Plain chicken or white fish can help in many cases, and special foods, such as Hills Prescription Diet I/D, are available to boost the healing of the gut.
  • Anti-diarrhoea pastes contain special minerals (for example, kaolin or montmorillonite) that firm up the stool and help reduce the symptoms.
  • Good bacteria (probiotics) and their food (prebiotics) will help the gut function return to normal.



Can gastroenteritis in cats be prevented?

  • Gastroenteritis has many possible causes. Keeping a healthy, balanced diet and limiting hunting will help prevent many of them.
  • Keeping up to date with vaccinations and parasite preventatives will prevent some types of gastroenteritis.
  • Some viral causes of gastroenteritis are highly contagious between cats. Avoid contact with other cats during illness and for a couple of weeks after recovery. Try to clean litter trays as quickly as possible.

Can I catch gastroenteritis from my cat?

This is rare, but some infectious causes of gastroenteritis in cats can also affect people. Speak to your GP if you have any concerns.


When to worry

When to worry about gastroenteritis in cats

Take your cat to see a vet immediately if they show:

  • Large amounts of blood in their diarrhoea
  • Black or tarry stools
  • Constant vomiting
  • Weakness or lack of response when you interact with them

Speak to a vet as soon as possible if your cat:

  • Continues to vomit even on an empty stomach
  • Is constantly passing watery diarrhoea
  • Loses interest in food
  • Is quiet or lethargic
  • Passes blood in their diarrhoea

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