The term “sensitive stomach” as it relates to cats frequently describes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Interestingly, IBS is often used interchangeably with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), but they are different conditions. Left untreated a sensitive stomach (i.e. IBS), can progress to full-blown IBD in cats.
With IBD there is chronic inflammation of the bowels. Kitties with IBS usually have “consistently intermittent” inflammation, meaning it comes and goes. IBS is actually less common in cats than IBD and other GI diseases, but it may not seem so, because when a kitty’s digestive issues aren’t accurately or thoroughly diagnosed, they are often lumped into the category of “sensitive stomach.”
Potential Causes and Symptoms of IBS in Cats
• Abnormal colonic myoelectrical activity and motility
• Changes in neural or neurochemical regulation of colonic function
• Dietary intolerances
• Lack of dietary fiber
The most common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in kitties involve intermittent-but-consistent bouts of diarrhea, frequent trips to the litterbox to pass small amounts of poop and mucus, and also constipation. Some cats also suffer from abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, and vomiting.
Diagnosing Irritable Bowel Syndrome IBS is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning it’s the diagnosis professional arrive at after every other condition with similar symptoms is ruled out. Most gastrointestinal (GI) disorders share a long list of symptoms, so there’s a lot to rule out before deciding a kitty has IBS. Some of the conditions that may need to be ruled out include: Intestinal parasites (e.g., giardia, coccidia) or pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, inflammatory colitis, bacterial, fungal or other type of infection (e.g., pythiosis), cancer of the colon or even abnormal turning of the intestine (cecal inversion).
Since inflammatory bowel disease is the number one cause of GI issues in cats, and since diarrhea is a symptom of both IBS and IBD, its best to check for IBD in cats with recurring GI issues.
Dietary Recommendations for Cats With IBS
If your cat is diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, I recommend you work with your veterinarian to create a comprehensive protocol to address dietary issues and appropriate supplements, including a high-quality pet probiotic to heal and reseed the gut with healthy bacteria.
The entire length of your pet’s digestive tract, when healthy, is coated with a good balance of bacteria that protects against foreign invaders, undigested food particles, toxins and parasites. Friendly gut bacteria serve as a natural antibiotic against pathogenic bacteria and also contain antifungal and antiviral properties. A healthy microbiome also promotes an appropriate immune response to invaders and is responsible for maintaining a variety of digestive functions.
When gut bacteria (your cat’s microbiome) are out of whack, the intestine walls are essentially unprotected and undernourished. A healthy balance of bacteria and prebiotic fibers provides a rich source of energy and nourishment for the lining of the GI tract. Microbiome restorative therapy can also be an inexpensive and profoundly effective tool to rebalance your cat’s internal terrain.
Depending on your kitty’s symptoms, your veterinarian may recommend a bland diet. The bland diet I prefer is a grain-free menu of cooked ground turkey and canned pumpkin (pure pumpkin, not the filling used in pies) or cooked sweet potato. Make sure to eliminate all treats as well.
When it’s safe for your cat to transition away from the bland diet, I recommend at minimum limited ingredient diet, but also a novel protein diet. This will give kitty’s GI tract and immune system a good rest. Novel protein diets are made with foods your cat hasn’t consumed before. I also recommend giving IBS cats a break from all sources of food contaminants, including high heat processing that creates AGEs (advanced glycation end products), foods that have been genetically modified, added colors and flavors, and synthetic vitamins.
You and your veterinarian should also discuss appropriate supplements in addition to a high-quality pet probiotic, for example, digestive enzymes. There are also numerous nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial in helping to reduce GI inflammation and IBS symptoms.
Also provide kitty with filtered water, free from fluoride and chorine. Eliminate chemical based household cleaning supplies, odor-control and scented litters, and room sprays, plug-ins, and fabric deodorizers.
Dietary Fiber Options to help the stomach heal and improve digestion
Irritable bowel syndrome can cause either diarrhea or constipation, and fiber supplementation can address both symptoms. If your cat lived in the wild, her natural prey would provide ample fiber in the form of fur, feathers and predigested gut contents. Since housecats don’t get prey animal fiber in their meals, it can be beneficial to add fiber to an IBS kitty’s diet to help keep things moving smoothly through the digestive tract — not too fast, and not too slow. Good options include:
• Psyllium husk powder — 1/2 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily on food
• Prebiotic-rich veggies — pureed asapargus, sunchokes, dark green leafies, 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily with food
• Coconut oil — 1/2 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily
• Canned 100 percent pumpkin — 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily on food
• Aloe juice (not the topical gel) — 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily on food
• Acacia fiber — 1/8 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1 to 2 times daily as prebiotic fiber
It’s also very important that cats with IBS stay well hydrated. As I mentioned above, make sure your kitty has access to clean, fresh, filtered drinking water at all times. Place a few bowls around the house in areas where she hangs out. You might also want to consider a pet water fountain, since many kitties will drink more from a moving water source. Also consider adding bone broth to her food.
Managing Stress in Cats With Touchy Tummies
Since stress plays a role in many feline disorders and is a particular problem for kitties with IBS, one of the best ways to help a cat with a sensitive gut is to make sure her environment and lifestyle are as stress-free as possible. There are several components to a cat’s indoor environment, and when it comes to enrichment, each should be considered from the perspective of your kitty:
Food, water and litterbox locations - Cats feel most vulnerable while eating, drinking or eliminating. This vulnerability is what causes a fearful response when a cat’s food dish or litterbox is in a noisy or high traffic area.
The essentials of your kitty’s life - food, water and his bathroom, should be located in a safe, secure location away from any area that is noisy enough to startle him or make him feel trapped and unable to escape. They should also remain in one spot and not be moved from place to place.
Places for climbing, scratching, resting and hiding - Cats are natural climbers and scratchers, and your cat also needs her own resting place and a hiding spot. Jackson Galaxy has written several books on creating feline environmental enrichment around the house that I highly recommend. He also has a line of flower essences that can be beneficial for IBS cats.
Consistency in interactions with humans - Your kitty feels most comfortable when his daily routine is predictable. Cats prefer to interact with other creatures (including humans) on their terms, and according to their schedule. Always remember: well-balanced indoor kitties are given the opportunity to feel in control of their environment.
Sensory stimulation: Visual stimulation - Some cats can gaze out the window for hours. Others are captivated by fish in an aquarium. Some even enjoy kitty videos.
Auditory stimulation - When you’re away from home, provide background noise for kitty that is similar to the ambient sounds she hears when you’re home, for example, music or the TV at low volume.
Olfactory stimulation - You can stimulate your cat’s keen sense of smell with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones.