How your cat’s digestive system works
Your cat’s digestive system is responsible for digesting food and absorbing the nutrients the body needs. The gastrointestinal tract is home to microflora, also known as ‘beneficial’ bacteria, which contribute to digestive health by promoting overall health when balanced and supporting the processing of food and nutrients. The digestive system also includes a dense population of immune system cells, meaning your cat’s gastrointestinal tract is one of the first places the immune system encounters potential pathogens or other things that may require an immune response.
However, a cat’s digestive system can be sensitive. The result is your cat can be sensitive to sudden changes in their diet, and any variation has the potential to cause stomach upset. They also tend to eat more frequently, but smaller meals, than a human; a cat will visit its food bowl between multiple times a day, eating a small amount at a time which is then processed by their digestive system.
The impact of diet on your cat’s digestive system
A healthy digestive system in your cat is one which effectively absorbs all the nutrients your cat needs to maintain its health. Their diet, including the digestibility of the diet and its nutrient composition, therefore directly contributes to the health of the digestive system and of their whole body.
Unlike other mammals, cats are unable to synthesise certain nutrients in their body which are needed for effective functioning. This includes taurine – found in protein – certain fatty acids, vitamin D and vitamin A. Your cat’s diet must include these essential components to support their overall well-being and health.
Cats have a high protein requirement – greater than a dog’s and a human – which is used to regenerate cells in their body, including their claws, antibodies and coat). This protein contains 11 essential amino acids, such as taurine, that a cat needs to function effectively; without taurine, they can suffer degeneration of their retina and heart problems.
Fat is an energy-dense part of your cat’s diet which can contribute to overall health and the health of their digestive system. For example, your cat needs specific fatty acids to replenish their skin cells and maintain its effective barrier. However, fat in their diet needs to be carefully balanced – too much fat can lead to obesity and other problems, including digestive sensitivities in some cats.
One of the key components in your cat’s diet which helps support gut health is fibre, both insoluble and soluble fibre. Insoluble fibre encourages regular movement of the gut and increases their stool bulk; soluble fibre acts like a ‘gelling’ agent which can slow down movement in the stomach and small intestine. A nutritionally-complete manufactured food will have the right balance of these fibres to maintain gastrointestinal health.
Other important elements of your cat’s diet in making sure their digestive system is healthy and able to absorb the nutrients its body needs are prebiotics. These encourage the development of ‘beneficial’ gut bacteria which contribute to your cat’s digestive health. Prebiotics include nutrients which positively affect the existing microflora in your cat’s gastrointestinal tract.
Your cat’s digestive tract is a sensitive and intricate system which needs the right care to stay healthy and effective. If you’re not sure on the best way to support your cat’s digestive well-being, speak to your vet.