How to Determine Gastrointestinal Problems in a Cat

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Unusual or sudden changes in the litter box require a visit to the vet.
Unusual or sudden changes in the litter box require a visit to the vet. (Image: photodeti/iStock/Getty Images)

If your cat is experiencing gastrointestinal upset, she may present with vomiting, constipation, diarrhea or an unwillingness to eat or drink. She may hide, cry or vocalize when she’s in the litter box. For best results, seek veterinary assistance when you first notice symptoms of intestinal problems with your kitty.

Intestinal Parasites

Intestinal parasites that cause gastrointestinal upset in your cat include tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms and whipworms. Outside cats are more prone to parasitic infection because they’re more likely to come in contact with infected fleas or feces from other animals. Your vet will need a fecal sample to test for parasites. Treatment usually includes a deworming agent.

Chronic Constipation

Your cat can develop chronic constipation -- or severe straining and difficulty evacuating her bowels -- from dehydration, a poor diet or an underlying health issue. Constipation also can manifest due to an intestinal blockage, such as a foreign body, tumor or scar tissue. Your vet can diagnose this condition through examination, evaluation of a stool sample and in some cases, bowel ultrasound or X-rays. Constipation usually is treated with rehydration, a wet food or high-fiber diet and on occasion, a stool softener.

Feline Megacolon

Megacolon is a defect in the muscles of the colon that presents with severe, long-term constipation. Other symptoms include lethargy, poor appetite and noticeable discomfort. If basic constipation-relieving approaches aren’t effective, your doctor may need to remove impacted feces manually or surgically. Severe cases may require removal of part of your cat’s large intestine.

Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth

Some intestinal bacteria are good, but an overgrowth can lead to gastrointestinal upset. The condition typically develops as a result of other medical disorders. Symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting. After using blood tests to identify the specific type of bacteria upsetting your cat, your vet likely will treat the condition with antibiotics or probiotics.

Food Allergies

Food allergies can lead to inflammation of your cat’s intestinal tract, with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and weight loss. Left untreated, chronic food allergy inflammation can develop into inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. Your vet will recommend various trial dietary changes to pinpoint the specific ingredients or foods that are triggering your cat’s gastrointestinal upset. He also may conduct blood tests or skin scratch tests to narrow the cause of food allergies.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease can develop from other untreated intestinal issues and can range from mild to severe. Feces may contain mucus or bright red blood and are usually small and runny. Blood tests to measure white blood cell count can help diagnose IBD. Left untreated, the disease can cause scarring in the intestines and stomach, making it difficult for your cat to absorb nutrients. Your vet may recommend a change in diet or the use of anti-inflammatory medications to treat the condition.

Feline Enteric Coronavirus

Feline enteric coronavirus is an inflammation of the small intestine and is related to the deadly feline infectious peritonitis. Cats contract the disease from the feces of other sick cats; it's most often observed in kittens. Young cats may have fever, diarrhea and vomiting while older cats may show no symptoms at all. Other than rehydration, there is no treatment for the disorder and cats typically recover and develop immunity to the condition.

Ulcers and Stomach Inflammation

If you cat vomits recently eaten food or expels green, frothy, bloody or black coffee ground-like substances, she may have stomach inflammation. Bloody vomit or black stools are an indication of stomach ulcers. Each condition may present with lack of appetite and accompanying weight loss. Your vet typically will conduct an ultrasound or X-ray to identify the problem. Dietary changes and acid-reducers usually are recommended.

Digestive System Cancers

Although rare, cats can develop cancer of the small intestine. This disease presents with many of the same symptoms as other gastrointestinal problems including bloody vomit and diarrhea, swelling of the abdomen, pain, constipation and anemia. Your vet will perform a physical exam and conduct a detailed medical history to confirm this diagnosis. Treatment may be surgical or palliative, depending on the severity of the condition.

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