The Importance of Gut Health in Cats
Just like humans, cats have trillions of microorganisms living in their intestines that help them process nutrients from food and support their immune system. In fact, 70% of a cat’s immune cells are found in their gut; if this system experiences an imbalance, it can significantly affect a cat’s ability to fight off infections.
A cat’s gut health impacts much more than its digestive tract. An imbalance in the microbiome is called dysbiosis, and can cause itchy skin, gastrointestinal issues, inflammation, hairballs, heightened stress levels or lethargy. If left unaddressed, dysbiosis can also lead to a host of more serious health issues.
Many external factors contribute to a cat’s gut health. Things like a cat’s diet, exposure to pathogens outdoors and even their level of physical activity can have both positive and negative effects on their microbiome. Here, we provide some useful tips for helping your cat maintain a healthy, thriving community of gut microorganisms.
Common Causes of Gut Problems in Cats
Your cat’s microbiome can be disrupted by a host of things, such as:
- Dietary changes or food additives
- Antibiotics, antimicrobials or other medications
- Unfamiliar or stressful situations
- Pathogens from the outdoors or other animals
- Lack of physical exercise
An unhealthy or imbalanced microbiome can result in:
- Chronic digestive disorders like feline inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Excessive inflammation
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Excessive gas
- A weakened immune system
- Frequent hairballs
It’s important to note that a cat’s gut health is symbiotic with its environment: the same things that can cause dysbiosis, such as elevated stress levels, can also be a result of dysbiosis. Therefore, it’s important to have a holistic understanding of how your cat’s microbiome works in order to help them maintain a healthy gut. The following are the major causes — and effects — of dysbiosis in cats.
Diet & Dietary Changes
Since gut bacteria are responsible for deriving nutrients and vitamins from food, as well as helping your cat process plant matter, anything that disrupts the microbiome will manifest in noticeable symptoms. Dysbiosis can result from any foods that are toxic to cats, such as onions, chocolate or grapes, or a diet that is heavy in carbohydrates. If you transition your cat to a new diet, do so gradually, as abrupt changes to their eating habits can cause stress to their digestive tract.
Oral antibiotics and antimicrobials are essential for treating infections in cats. However, while they can eradicate harmful pathogens, they can also inadvertently wipe out lots of good bacteria living in your cat’s gut. If your cat is on an antibiotic regimen for an illness, it’s important to feed them probiotics to restore beneficial microbes.
Just like humans, stress can negatively affect your cat’s digestion. Likewise, an imbalance and uncomfortable gut can lead to feelings of stress and anxiety. Stressful situations that can cause dysbiosis include going to the vet, staying in a kennel or cat hotel, admission to a shelter, loud noises, unexpected encounters with other animals, etc.
Cats inadvertently ingest a good deal of their own fur via grooming. Most of this fur can pass through their digestive tract without incident, especially if the cat has shorter hair. However, lower quality food, stress or lack of proper water intake can cause excessive shedding, which can lead to hairballs. A hairball is a buildup of indigestible hair that can block a cat’s digestive tract and cause either constipation or regurgitation. If regurgitated, hairballs do not pose a significant risk to a cat’s gut health. However, some hairballs become so obstructive that they impede gut motility, prevent nutrient absorption and cause excessive bacterial growth. These blockages must be surgically removed.
Underlying Health Issues
Conditions such as kidney disease, feline leukemia, worms and diabetes can all cause imbalances in your cat’s gut. If this is the case, medications or a change in diet to maintain gut health should be part of your cat’s treatment plan. Your cat’s veterinarian will be able to recommend the best course of action.
How to Improve Your Cat’s Gut Health
Without a healthy gut, your cat cannot live its best life. Fortunately, there are lots of preventative and reactive measures you can take to help your cat’s microbiome flourish and thrive. Before making any significant changes to your cat’s diet or lifestyle, please consult a veterinarian for guidance.
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means that they thrive on a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Many cat parents find that feeding their cat a raw diet maximizes their protein intake while delivering clean nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods. If you’re considering transitioning your cat to a raw or minimally processed diet, be sure to do so slowly by gradually increasing the proportions of new food to old in their dish over the course of 1–3 weeks. As always, try to discourage any scavenging habits your cat may have developed, as this can increase the chance of a gut health imbalance. Refer to the chart below for an ideal transition schedule.
|HOW TO TRANSITION YOUR CAT TO A NEW DIET|
|Percentages are out of the total amount of food given at each feeding.
Before making any changes to your cat’s diet, please consult with a nutrition-focused veterinarian. Any health issues and medications should be accounted for when altering your cat’s diet or daily food intake.
|Day Increments||Old Food||New food|
Cats have not evolved with a high thirst drive, since most of the moisture they receive in the wild comes from their diet of fresh, raw meat. Domestic cats require more intentional moisture intake, since insufficient hydration can lead to an imbalanced gut. Feed them high quality, high moisture food (raw or canned) to aid in overall hydration levels, even if only a couple times a week. Keep several bowls of fresh water where your cat can reach them (never near their litter box, where water can become contaminated), or provide them with their own water fountain if they like to drink from the tap.
If harmful bacteria in your cat’s intestines are causing infection or illness, their vet may prescribe antibiotics. However, since antibiotics don’t discriminate when eradicating bacteria, your cat’s gut health may be significantly weakened after treatment. Luckily, prebiotics, probiotics or other supplements can help restore crucial microbes.
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Probiotics are oral supplements that contain billions of live bacteria, while prebiotics contain dietary fiber that promotes the growth of healthy bacteria. Many cat foods contain these supplements already, but increasing your cat’s intake can help regulate an imbalance microbiome. Prebiotics and probiotics can be especially beneficial following an antibiotic regimen; be sure to choose capsules specially formulated to withstand a cat’s strong stomach acid as they make their way to the intestines.
Physical Exercise & Mental Stimulation
Exercise stimulates the large intestine, which helps aid your cat’s gut motility. Regular physical activity also helps your cat maintain a healthy weight; obesity can have a negative effect on your cat’s microbiome, not to mention lead to a host of other health issues. Likewise, cats who are bored or stressed can experience poor gut health, so it’s important to keep them busy and active. Engage them in hunting play with toys, string or laser pointers; utilize a puzzle feeder or activity tray at meal times; and provide them with objects they can climb and scratch to their heart’s content.
Grooming & Dental Hygiene
Regular fur brushing helps reduce the occurrence of gut-blocking hairballs, which is especially important for longer-haired cats. And since a cat’s mouth is part of its digestive tract, oral health can have a major effect on gut health. Certain foods or toys can help keep your cat’s teeth clean, but brushing may be required if plaque buildup is excessive. Regularly brushing your cat’s teeth with feline-formulated toothpaste will help reduce the risk of gut inflammation due to harmful mouth bacteria.
Most cat owners are not experts in cat health, and cats are notoriously secretive with their feelings. However, their behavior can send some revealing messages about their gut health, and whether intervention is needed.
Keep an eye out for signs like abnormal bowel movements, more frequent hairballs, changes in their eating or activity habits or a general change in mood. When in doubt, consult a veterinarian for guidance. But if you take the preventative measures above, you’ll help your cat maintain optimal gut health for years to come.
RAWZ makes minimally processed pet food that pets love. Using 100% rendered-free ingredients, RAWZ Meal Free Dry Food and Gum Free Wet Food provide your cat with the quality protein and healthy hydration they crave. RAWZ is available at select pet retail stores across the U.S., Canada and Asia. One hundred percent of proceeds are donated to service dog providers and to causes that support survivors of traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.
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