The two most common signs associated with disturbances of the gastrointestinal tract are vomiting and diarrhea. This section explains how the digestive tract works and how to look after your cat with a chronic (long duration) intestinal upset.
The digestive tract
For cats to obtain the fuel they need for their daily life, they must digest their food - that is, they break the food down into smaller nutrients that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Digestion begins in the stomach, and continues in the intestines where the nutrients are absorbed - the pancreas is also involved, producing substances that aid the process.
None of this process occurs in the large intestine. Here, water is re-absorbed into the bloodstream - to allow for the production of firm stools, but also to maintain the body's water balance.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is caused by a severe inflammation of the bowels, and results in poor digestion and absorption of nutrients. If she has IBD, signs may include weight loss and a generally poor condition. IBD is a frequent cause of vomiting and diarrhea, especially in young cats. (Note that vomiting is more common than diarrhea in this condition.)
To treat IBD, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication -- and a special "hypoallergenic" diet. Hypoallergenic diets contain a single protein source and may also include a single source of carbohydrate, and particularly, ingredients not commonly associated with sensitivity reactions -- not, for instance, beef, milk, or certain cereals, which are often the source of allergic reactions.
Colitis is inflammation of the colon, or large intestine. If your cat has colitis, you may see signs of straining and discomfort while she attempts to defecate -- and when she does defecate, she passes only small amounts of diarrheic feces that may contain blood and/or mucus. Colitis can be caused by many factors, including:
For some cats, this is a minor condition; for others, it is a severe and debilitating illness. Some may be predisposed to recurrent colitis.
Your veterinarian may recommend anti-inflammatory medication for your cat, especially in the early stages of the disease, to decrease the inflammation and improve the clinical signs. In certain types of colitis, such as chronic idiopathic colitis, dietary management may reduce the necessity of long-term anti-inflammatory medication.
Inflammation of the pancreas - "pancreatitis" -- usually causes vomiting and abdominal pain in your cat. The exact cause is often unknown -- but the condition may be exacerbated by high fat meals or table scraps.
If your cat suffers acute pancreatitis, you will need to keep her from any food or water for several days, so the pancreas is not stimulated to produce enzymes. In such a case, she will likely have to be hospitalized and given fluids, and possibly nutrients, intravenously. When your cat can begin to eat, your veterinarian will recommend that you feed her small amounts of a highly digestible, low fat diet.
Looking after cats with digestive disorders
If your cat has a digestive tract disorder, you must feed her the right diet. Everyone who comes into contact with your pet -- family members and neighbors, particularly -- should be told about this diet, and that no treats or snacks are allowed. Keep an eye, too, on your cat so she doesn't scavenge food from outside or from the garbage can.
Talk to your veterinarian about a special diet appropriate to your cat's condition. Sick cats should have palatable, highly digestible, high quality nutrients to help repair damaged tissues and restore normal function.