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​What makes a cat's digestive system healthy?

Adult Siamese standing indoors eating from a yellow bowl.
Every part of your cat's digestive system helps absorb nutrients essential for its overall health and well-being—so what makes their system healthy, and how can you help?

Your cat's digestive system plays a crucial role in supporting the health of their entire body. But what makes these organs healthy?

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 remaining in balance with your cat 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 an immune response occurs.

However, a cat's digestive system can be much more sensitive than a human's. These organs account for around 3% of your cat's total bodyweight, with food taking between 12 and 24 hours to move through their intestine; in humans, this is 11% and up to five days.

The result is your cat is 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 10 and 16 times a day, eating a little which is then processed by their digestive system.

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The impact of diet on your cat's digestive system

A healthy digestive system in your cat is one which effectively absorbs all the components your cat needs to maintain its health. Their diet therefore directly contributes to the health of the digestive system and of their whole body.

Unlike other mammals, cats are unable to synthesize 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 twice that of a human—which is used to regenerate cells in their body, including their claws, antibodies, and coat (which is made of 95% protein). This protein contains 11 essential amino acids, such as taurine, that a cat needs to function effectively; without it, 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 can lead to obesity and aggravate their gastrointestinal tract, resulting in diarrhea.

One of the key components in your cat's diet which helps support gut health is fiber, both insoluble and soluble fiber. Insoluble fiber encourages regular movement of the gut and increases their stool bulk; soluble fiber acts like a "gelling" agent that can slow down gastric flow. A nutritionally complete manufactured food will have the right balance of these fibers to maintain good 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 pro- and pre-biotics. These encourage the development of "beneficial" gut bacteria which contribute to your cat's digestive health, either by providing a non-digestible "platform" on which the bacteria can grow or including nutrients and micro-organisms which positively effect the existing microflora in your cat's gastrointestinal tract.

Your cat's digestion is a sensitive and intricate system which needs the right care to stay healthy and effective. If you're not sure about the best way to support your cat's digestive well-being, speak to your vet who will be happy to advise.

  • Digestive health

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