Cats are notoriously finicky eaters, so it might surprise you to learn that stomach upsets are actually quite commonplace. But just a few bites of spoiled food or a mild infection can cause stomach distress — known as gastritis — and trigger a trip to the veterinary clinic, according to Mary Labato, DVM, veterinary internal medicine specialist and Clinical Professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
“The most common reasons for gastritis are self-limiting dietary indiscretion, overeating or mild infection, and gastritis caused by any of these should resolve on its own within 12 to 24 hours,” says Dr. Labato. “However, if a cat is repeatedly vomiting or blood is present in the vomit, she should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.”
Gastritis Doesn’t Discriminate
Gastritis develops in both cats and dogs, and males are just as likely as females to be affected. Because younger cats are more prone to dietary indiscretion (that is, eating something inappropriate or eating too much), they are more likely to develop acute gastritis, while chronic gastritis can be seen in all ages and breeds of cats.
Acute and Chronic Gastritis in Cats
Acute gastritis is characterized by vomiting of a short duration, usually less than seven days. Chronic gastritis, on the other hand, is characterized by intermittent vomiting of greater than one to two weeks’ duration. While acute gastritis can clear up on its own, chronic gastritis can be serious and even life threatening.
Dietary indiscretion. Cats are sensitive animals, so any abrupt change in their diet can wreak havoc with their gastrointestinal system. The same goes for overeating: Some cats will stuff themselves, if given the opportunity, until they feel ill and vomit. Acute gastritis can be also be caused by stressful changes in a cat’s environment. Introduction of a new family member, a move to another home or even noise from a nearby tree trimmer can bring about vomiting and diarrhea.
However, it’s not uncommon for a normal, healthy cat to experience occasional bouts of acute gastritis during her lifetime. As long as the condition is “self-limiting” — meaning that it is short-lived and resolves on its own — there’s nothing to worry about.
Mild infections. Gastritis can be caused by a variety of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections. “Some parasites will have a migratory phase through the stomach and intestines, which causes irritation,” says Dr. Labato. “Some of the monthly heartworm preventatives are effective against some intestinal parasites. Blood tests are good for ruling out metabolic disease as a cause of vomiting and stool checks can help detect intestinal parasites.”
Foreign bodies. Often, a kitten or adult cat will eat something that irritates the stomach lining or causes a blockage. Hairballs, grass, plastic, aluminum foil or other foreign objects can cause stomach irritation.
Medications. Certain medications or poisons such as antifreeze can cause severe gastrointestinal distress by irritating the lining of the stomach or by triggering a reflex mechanism that stimulates the vomiting center of the brain.
Tumors of the stomach. Gastritis and/or gastric outflow obstruction can occasionally be caused by benign or malignant tumors in the stomach.
Inflammatory bowel disease. “Inflammatory bowel disease can cause gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation in both the stomach and intestine. And severe inflammatory bowel disease can result in gastric or intestinal ulcers,” explains Dr. Labato.
Diseases in other areas of the body. Gastritis can occasionally be associated with liver disease, kidney disease, neurologic diseases, and pancreatitis.
Common Signs and Treatment of Feline Gastritis
Vomiting, refusal to eat and lethargy are the most common signs of gastritis. Although an antacid such as Pepto-Bismol is occasionally recommended by veterinarians to treat dogs with gastritis, it is not safe to give cats. “There is a little bit of aspirin in Pepto-Bismol and it shouldn’t be given to cats,” says Dr. Labato. (Important: Never give your cat medication unless you’ve first discussed it with your veterinarian.) If blood is present in the vomit or if vomiting persists for more than a short period of time, your veterinarian should be consulted.
A veterinarian may also recommend that you withhold food and water from your cat for several hours to allow the gastrointestinal tract to rest, followed by a gradual introduction of water and a bland diet. Some suggestions include: boiled chicken or turkey and rice.
For more severe cases, a veterinarian may administer antiemetic drugs that decrease or eliminate vomiting, and provide fluids and electrolyte therapy for dehydration. In addition, he or she may order a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemical profile, conduct a urinalysis and analyze the stool. In some instances, further testing is required, including abdominal ultrasound, radiographs or even an endoscopic examination under anesthesia to look closely at the interior of the stomach.
No matter how diligently you watch your cat, there’s always a chance she will eat something that doesn’t agree with her or that she’ll have a reaction to a new food or medication. If an upset stomach doesn’t clear up quickly or if your cat is exhibiting obvious signs of discomfort or pain, seek medical attention.
Follow Veterinary Advice
It is important that you follow your veterinarian’s recommendations regarding diet and hydration for your cat. In many cases, after withholding food and water for a prescribed period of time, and then gradually introducing a bland diet, gastritis will resolve on its own. After a few days, your cat can usually resume her normal diet and activities.