Keeping your cat's digestive system healthy

Adult Maine Coon cat lying down on wooden floor
Cats and humans have very different digestive systems. It’s important to understand these so you can help to prevent any digestive problems in your cat and spot when issues might be arising. Because what seems delicious to you may cause a chronic stomach upset, or even be toxic for cats.

How is cat digestion different from humans?

Cat tongue illustration

Taste

Cats have very few taste buds at 475 compared to humans with around 9,000 and dogs with 1,700.1 This means that cats can taste bitterness, acidity, saltiness, and umami, but they can’t taste sweet flavors at all. Nevertheless, taste is important for cats as aroma and taste are often linked. Cats can smell the olfactory characteristics of the food through the nose and the back of the throat.

Cat mouth illustration

Chewing

A cat has sharp teeth for cutting and tearing, and jaws that don’t move sideways. Compared to humans, who chew their food at length, cats don't spend as much time chewing. They use their back teeth to chew their food, which can impact their digestive function as food arrives in their stomach in chunks.

Cat bowl illustration

Eating time

Cats have much smaller stomachs than humans or dogs. This, along with the history of cats as solitary hunters, means rather than eating two or three larger portions, cats eat many small meals throughout the day. Cats can also be sensitive to busy environments and can easily be disturbed when they're eating, so it's important for them to eat in calm, quiet places to avoid negative impact on food intake.

Cat food bag illustration

Diet

Humans are omnivorous and it’s recommended that 60–65% of our diet is dry carbohydrates. Cats, on the other hand, are carnivorous and can function without these high levels of carbohydrates. Instead, they need a more protein-rich diet than humans and may need more fats.


A common question is how long does it take for cats to digest food? For cats, it takes just 12-24 hours for food to move through their intestines, compared to human digestion which can take up to five days.2

A closer look at a cat’s digestive system

As with dogs and humans, each element of your cat's digestive system has a role to play in breaking down food and absorbing the nutrients it needs. It also holds beneficial bacteria, called microbiota, to keep the gut healthy and lots of immune system cells to protect their overall health.

A cat’s digestive system can be particularly sensitive and may be easily upset by sudden changes to its diet, for example. It’s also designed for cats to eat more frequently and to eat smaller meals. Many cats visit their food bowl several times a day and eat only a small amount each time. To avoid your pet gaining weight, it's therefore important to be aware of daily rations and divide this over each small meal.

Stomach Colon Large Intestine Liver Small Intestine

Important nutrients for your cat’s digestion

Every element of your cat’s food can play a role in supporting their delicate digestive system and, in turn, their overall health. To get advice on the best diet for your cat and their specific needs or sensitivities, it’s always best to ask your veterinarian. But let’s look at the key nutrients and factors that are important for every cat’s digestive system.

Illustration of a cooked chicken

Protein

Protein is vital in your cat’s diet. They need a more protein-rich diet than dogs or humans, but it can cause problems if it’s not easily digestible. Protein sources may also contain taurine, which cats need to function effectively but can’t produce themselves.

Illustration of a beetroot

Fiber

Fiber can be crucial in helping your cat to maintain a healthy digestive system. A high-fiber diet can, for example, prevent hairballs from forming and encourages regular bowel movements. Prebiotics encourage the right balance of microbiota to support a cat's digestive health and manage any sensitivities.

Illustration of fat

Fats

Fat is a valuable source of energy for cats. They also need it for the healthy functioning of certain organs such as their skin. Too much fat may lead to obesity in some cats.

Illustration of a fish

Vitamins

Vitamins D and A, among other vitamins required by cats are essential in your cat’s diet as they can’t create these themselves and they’re essential for their health.

Illustration of grains

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates aren’t as important to cats as they are for humans, but they can provide energy. And highly digestible sources of carbohydrates may be helpful for cats with digestive problems.


Understanding cat digestive issues

As a cat’s digestive system is so delicately balanced, it can be particularly prone to problems. Things that can give your cat an upset stomach include changes to their diet, stress/anxiety, and underlying health issues.

Common digestive problems in cats

Parasites

Microscopic parasites can settle in your cat’s intestines and cause severe diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and weight loss, not to mention abdominal discomfort. Talk to your veterinarian if you think your cat has parasites, as they can prescribe medication to help clear them.

Hairballs

For cats that live indoors, hairballs can be a common problem as grooming is one of their main activities. As cats groom, they swallow loose hairs that usually pass out in their stools. If there’s an excess of hair, however, they can’t digest it properly and it forms a hairball which makes digestion difficult. You can help by brushing your cat regularly to remove excess hair and ensuring their diet has a mix of fiber to disperse the hair they’ve swallowed.

Inflammatory diseases

If one or more of your cat’s digestive organs becomes inflamed, it could cause your cat discomfort and other problems. The effects can include chronic vomiting and diarrhea, weight loss, and a change in appetite. They may even have a big increase in appetite as they attempt to get the nutrients they need.

Signs to look out for

If you think your cat has digestive issues, there are several things to watch for, including:

  • Diarrhea or constipation.
  • Vomiting or regurgitating food or hairballs.
  • Bad breath or frequent flatulence.
  • Reluctance or struggling to eat or increased appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • A dry, dull, brittle coat.
  • Signs of a painful abdomen.

Ask your veterinarian

If you think your cat has an upset stomach or digestive problem, it’s important to contact your veterinarian. They can do important checks to identify the potential causes of the issues. And they can also advise you on any changes you need to make, including to your cat’s diet, to help address the problems and discomfort they’re having.

Choosing the right foods for your cat's healthy digestive system

Whether you think your cat has digestive problem or not, it’s always worth asking your veterinarian for advice on the best food for them. There are a wide range of highly digestible cat foods available to suit the specific needs of each pet—from indoor cats with lower energy requirements to kittens with typically sensitive stomachs.

1 Pibot P et al, eds. Encyclopedia of Feline Clinical Nutrition, 2008. 

2 Grandjean D. Everything you need to know about the role played by nutrients for the health of cats & dogs, 2006. 

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