Gastroenteritis is a common problem that affects the stomach and intestinal tract of a cat. Any cat can develop gastroenteritis and it's hard to ignore it due to its obvious, and often messy symptoms. It may be the result of a serious illness or simply a reaction to a new food, but it's helpful for you to understand what this problem is and how it can be safely treated.
What Is Gastroenteritis?
Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines. These internal organs are responsible for the breakdown of food, as well as the absorption of nutrients. If the stomach and intestines become irritated for any reason, gastroenteritis may develop as a result. If bleeding in the digestive tract also occurs, the type of gastroenteritis is referred to as hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE).
Symptoms of Gastroenteritis in Cats
Gastroenteritis, like many other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, often results in vomiting and diarrhea, but other symptoms may also be seen.
Vomiting is a classic symptom of gastroenteritis. Though this symptom can indicate many other conditions in a cat, such as kidney disease, if it is not treated quickly, losing large amounts of liquids can cause dehydration. The inflammation that occurs in the stomach lining and intestinal tract with gastroenteritis results in an upset stomach and, subsequently, causes vomiting. If the cat doesn't fully vomit, it may cat dry heave or gag after eating. The vomit resulting from gastroenteritis may contain foamy bile with a yellowish tint.
Diarrhea is the second most common symptom of gastroenteritis, but can also have other causes. Continuous large amounts of diarrhea can cause a cat to lose even larger amounts of liquid than vomiting which can lead to shock due to severe salt imbalance.
There are many reasons a cat can pass gas, including food allergies, parasites, and other health conditions that irritate the digestive tract, such as gastroenteritis. If the gas does not pass easily, the cat will feel discomfort.
Lethargy can be a symptom of many illnesses, including gastroenteritis which will make the cat listless. Along with decreased movement, a cat may also hide because it does not feel well and does not want to be bothered. A low-grade fever may also be present, which may add to the cat's lethargy.
Loss of Appetite
Your cat may lose its appetite if it has any type of digestive condition, including gastroenteritis. A diminished appetite can be especially concerning when your cat is simultaneously vomiting and has diarrhea, and you may want to expedite a visit to your veterinarian.
Some cats will also cry out if their abdomen is pressed on or hiss and try to bite if their belly is pet because it is painful. Trapped gas and other liquids can cause the abdomen to become distended, causing more inflammation and pain.
What Causes Gastroenteritis in Cats?
Many things can cause a cat to develop gastroenteritis, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Dietary changes or indiscretion: Overeating, poor-quality and indigestible foods, new foods, treats, or supplements, eating garbage or foreign objects, such as chocolate, mushrooms, xylitol, and other toxic household items, can increase the risk of gastroenteritis.
- Infections: Many types of viral, bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections can cause this health condition in your cat. Some infections include feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline parvovirus (panleukopenia virus), E. coli, Clostridium, Giardia, and whipworms.
- Medication side effects: Antibiotics, steroids, NSAIDs, and other medicines can produce bouts of gastroenteritis.
- Organ diseases: Pancreatitis, liver disease, kidney disease, and gallbladder disease can cause ruptures and inflammation resulting in gastroenteritis.
How Do Veterinarians Diagnose Gastroenteritis in Cats?
If your cat is showing symptoms of gastroenteritis, your cat will need to be immediately seen by the veterinarian. The doctor will give your cat a full physical examination, obtain the cat's medical history, ask questions about how your cat has been acting at home, what it may have been exposed to out of the ordinary, and if there were any dietary changes. In addition, your veterinarian may request the following:
- A fecal sample can be taken to be examined for parasitic, bacterial, or fungal infections. If your cat is extremely ill, your veterinarian may check the stool sample for HGE, which is a serious form of gastroenteritis often referred to as acute hemorrhagic diarrhea syndrome (AHDS). Red blood may be seen in the vomit and diarrhea but black, digested blood may also be present.
- X-rays will check for signs of diseases or foreign objects that could be causing the gastroenteritis.
- An ultrasound may be necessary to further investigate why your cat's abdomen is painful to the touch.
- Blood work may be performed to look for other signs of infection, disease, or toxin exposure.
How to Treat Gastroenteritis
Treatment will vary depending on the cause of the gastroenteritis. Your veterinarian may recommend the following treatments for your cat:
- Medicines such as antiemetics, probiotics, antidiarrheals, and fluid therapy may be prescribed if vomiting and diarrhea are present.
- Dietary changes, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antifungals, or antiparasitics may be needed for gastroenteritis.
- Surgery may be necessary if your cat has a blockage in its digestive tract.
- Hospitalization may be required if your cat needs to be on IV fluids due to the illness.
Prognosis for Cats With Gastroenteritis
Most cats treated for gastroenteritis recover quickly. Recovery may be apparent after the cat is rehydrated during treatment. However if the cat continues to vomit and have diarrhea 24 to 48 hours after beginning any type of medicine or non-surgical treatment, call your veterinarian.
How to Prevent Gastroenteritis
Reduce the risk of your cat developing gastroenteritis by taking a few key precautions. Ingesting a new food, treat, medication, toxin, foreign object, or something else are the most common reasons for gastroenteritis. Take these steps to help keep your cat healthy:
- Introduce new foods, treats, medications, and supplements into your cat's diet slowly.
- Keep items and foods your cat shouldn't eat out of its reach.
- Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian for fecal screenings and routine blood to help catch diseases before they could cause gastroenteritis.
- Deworm or give your cat routine intestinal parasite preventatives to help reduce the danger of gastroenteritis brought on by parasitic infections.
- Keep your cat in a clean environment and away from pets and other animals with an unknown health status to lessen the likelihood of your cat experiencing gastroenteritis.
Trotman, Tara K. Gastroenteritis. Small Animal Critical Care Medicine, 2015. doi:10.1016/B978-1-4557-0306-7.00117-3
Trotman TK. Gastroenteritis. Small Animal Critical Care Medicine. Published online 2015:622-626.
Gastroenteritis in cats | vca animal hospitals.
Rubin, Stacy I. Introduction to digestive disorders of cats. Merck Veterinary Manual, October 2020
Gastroenteritis in cats | vca animal hospitals.