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Digestive Support & Hairball Remedies
About Your Cat's Digestive System
A cat's digestive system begins at the mouth and extends all the way through kitty's body to the anus. The pancreas and liver are also considered part of the digestive system. Anyone who's ever fed a cat knows that cats can be extremely finicky about what they eat!
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that they must consume fresh meat protein as the primary nutrient in their diet. They are not scavengers, so will not consume stale or rotted food. A cat's saliva does not contain the enzyme used to break down carbohydrates, since this is not a part of the cat's natural diet. Cats don't typically have a "sweet tooth". They need to eat several smaller meals throughout the day, and are not meant to fast. Feeding a cat the wrong type of diet can lead to problems like fatty liver or the digestive upsets described below.
Digestion begins as soon as a cat takes a bite of food. Once that food is ground up by the teeth and mixed with saliva in the mouth, it passes through the esophagus into the stomach, where it's broken down by the cat's digestive enzymes and acids, which are stronger than those in the human stomach, even strong enough to digest feathers, hair, and bones in prey animals. Some of these harder bits may be regurgitated by the cat. Proteins are broken down into their amino acid building blocks in the stomach.
From there, food moves into the small intestines, where the carbohydrates, nutrients, fats, and proteins in the food are mixed with bile and pancreatic enzymes and transformed into the molecules needed by the cat's body to function properly. In the small intestines, these molecules are transferred into the bloodstream and lymphatic system, where they are carried to the portions of the body that need them. Toxins are also removed from the food at this point.
What's left over, now liquified, passes into the large intestine, where friendly bacteria help extract and absorb more nutrients. The large intestine also extracts water from the food, which is where cats in the wild actually get most of their hydration. It's an important part of the cat's immune system, as well.
The remainder is excreted as waste material through the anus. Anal glands located near the anus help the cat mark its territory as a sign to other cats. A complete trip through the cat's digestive system usually takes about 20 hours.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work! Anyone who's lived with a cat knows that you'd better be prepared for cleaning up vomit from whatever doesn't agree with kitty's digestive system.
Cats may not completely chew their food, especially older cats whose teeth are bothering them. This can cause a blockage in the esophagus. If a cat starts repeatedly throwing up food just eaten, this may be the problem. A visit to the vet is warranted to make sure there's not something like a fish bone or foreign object stuck in the esophagus. Some cats, especially older ones, may vomit frequently after eating. Raising the cat's dish so the esophagus is parallel to the floor instead of tilted downward at the top while the cat is eating may help this.
Hairballs are a common occurrence in cats. They result from the cat using the little barbs on its tongue to comb its fur, and swallowing the loose hairs that are removed during grooming. Sometimes these pass through the digestive system, while other times they are vomited up. If your cat suffers often from hairballs, regular brushing to remove excess loose hair may help, as well as one of the many hairball products designed to help the cat pass them through the system instead of throwing them up on your carpet. Some cats will eat grass to help them process hairballs.
A cat's liver converts food proteins into the material to fuel your cat's body, as well as making the clotting agents for blood and helping metabolize sugars. The liver is also quite important in removing toxins and dead red blood cells from your cat's body. Bile manufactured by the liver helps break down fats in your cat's stomach. If the liver is malfunctioning, your cat may become jaundiced from too much bile in the bloodstream.
The pancreas neutralizes acids in food passing from the stomach to the intestines, preventing damage to the intestines. It makes insulin, essential for maintaining blood sugar balance. Enzymes that digest starches, sugars, fats, and proteins are also made by the pancreas. Pancreatic functioning in cats is triggered by amino acids, not glucose, as it is in humans. Some cats may get an inflamed pancreas, also known as pancreatitis, that will cause digestive upset including diarrhea.
The consistency of your cat's feces may tell you a lot about what's ailing the cat's digestive system, and your vet may ask you to bring a sample with you if you need to seek medical help.
Feline Digestive Disorders
Most cats suffer from some type of digestive upset at some point in their lives, and the same symptoms can mean various things. A diagnosis by your veterinarian is always a good idea. But here are some of the digestive problems you may see in your cat, and several possible causes for each:
Vomiting: Can be from hairballs, gulping food too quickly, eating inappropriate food for cats, straining to defecate, motion sickness, inflammatory bowel disease, parasites, tumors, food allergies, intestinal obstructions, metabolic problems, bacterial infection, some prescribed drugs, ingestion of toxins, major organ disease or failure.
Drooling: Can be from stress, motion sickness, pleasure, dental problems, gum disease, a foreign body stuck in the digestive tract, a tumor, an oral ulcer or injury, a cyst in a salivary gland, an insect sting, hyperthyroidism.
Diarrhea: Could be from stress, change of diet, ingestion of toxins or foreign material, consumption of milk by an adult cat, giardia, cryptosporidium, bacterial infection, inflammatory bowel disease, parasites, tumors (cancerous or non), food allergies, metabolic problems, worms, antibiotics, pancreatitis, thyroid disease, colitis, feline distemper (panleukopenia), intoxication, intestinal obstruction, liver disease, kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, FELV, FIV, FIP.
Constipation: Could be from congenital deformities, injury to the spine or pelvis, inactivity, dehydration, hairballs, stress, low potassium level, inadequate fiber in the cat's diet, obesity, supplements containing iron, aluminum hydroxide in some medications, ingesting too much kaolin, a large hairball stuck in the intestine, spinal cord injury.
Gas: Could be from milk or dairy products consumed by an adult cat, giardia, bacterial infections, food allergy, an underperforming pancreas, inflammatory bowel disease.
Abdominal pain, nausea, or rumbling: Could be from bacterial infection, impacted anal glands, milk consumed by an adult cat, numerous other causes.
Bloated abdomen: Could be from giardia, constipation, FIP, or a secondary symptom of many of these other conditions.
Weight loss: Could be from inflammatory bowel disease, parasites, tumors, food allergies, metabolic problems, toxoplasmosis, or a number of non-digestive causes.
Appetite changes: Could be from constipation, giardia, toxoplasmosis, inflammatory bowel disease, parasites, tumors, food allergies, intestinal obstructions, metabolic problems, roundworms, thyroid malfunction, or a general feeling of malaise.
Lethargy: Could be from giardia, toxoplasmosis, constipation, or a number of non-digestive disorders.
You can see why digestive upsets are something that should be examined further by your veterinarian! Self-diagnosing without all the facts or the expertise to interpret them could be dangerous for your cat. Make note of the symptoms your cat has experienced, their duration, and anything unusual that may have happened to cause them. Once you have a diagnosis in hand, it'll be easier to choose the correct treatment for whatever's ailing kitty's tummy.
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