If you’re like many cat owners, when your cat develops a sensitive stomach, you start checking the ingredients list on their food or scrutinizing the human food you gave them. You might even think you’ve discovered a food intolerance, or a more serious food allergy, and avoid those ingredients entirely.
But before you toss out your cat's food, you should know that most of the time, a sensitive stomach isn’t related to food. Food intolerances in cats are rare, and true food allergies are even rarer. Also, food allergies are more often characterized by skin itchiness and bumps on the head, neck, and other areas.
So, what’s the source of your cat’s stomach problems? Some of the most common causes include stress, parasites, and eating foreign objects.
In this guide, we’ll go over reasons your cat might be having a sensitive stomach, how to identify them, and what you can do to help based on expert advice from veterinarians.
Common Sensitive Stomach Symptoms in Cats
First, you should know how to spot signs that your cat could be struggling with an upset stomach. Gastrointestinal distress often shows up through these symptoms:
- Acid reflux
- Loose stools
- Loss of appetite
- Licking lips (Can be a sign of nausea)
5 Causes of Sensitive Stomachs (From Most Common to Less Common)
Tracking down the cause is the first step to helping your cat feel better. We’ve rounded up these common causes to give you an idea, but you should consult with your veterinarian on your cat’s digestive health issues.
This is also important because there are other reasons your cat may have a sensitive stomach that we haven’t listed here, like a disease or other health condition.
From stress to true food allergies, here are common reasons for sensitive stomachs in cats.
Stress is the culprit for many health and behavior issues in pets, and cats are no exception. Unlike dogs, which are predators, cats are both predator and prey. They have to be on guard for danger, which makes them more sensitive to changes in their environment. That sudden or chronic stress can lead to an upset stomach and also inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Here are some common causes of stress in cats:
- Moving to a new home
- Rearranging furniture or adding or removing items
- Introducing a new pet or family member to the home
- Changing their routine, like moving the litter box or changing their feeding schedule
- Changing their diet, like switching from kitten food to an adult cat food
- Being around other pets or animals
- Lacking space or environmental stimulation
Safety and comfort are really important for cats, so, think about whether you’ve made any adjustments recently. You can also help your cat relieve stress by getting them moving with exercise and playtime. Break out their favorite toys every day or try hiding food-filled treats around the house.
2. Parasites and Bacterial Infections
If your cat has a parasite or a bacterial infection, it can also cause a sensitive stomach, not to mention other health issues, if left untreated.
Although outdoor cats tend to have a higher risk of contracting parasites, cats pick up parasites and bacteria from a variety of sources, like infected animals, soil, feces (outdoors or in the litter box), fleas, and food. We know — yuck. Here are some of the gastrointestinal parasites that often appear in adult cats and kittens:
Cats can also get bacterial infections of the digestive system, from bacteria like the following:
- Campy bacter
These infections require medical attention to treat, so consult with your veterinarian to rule this out or start treatment.
3. Foreign Materials and Objects
Cats, like most pets (and many little kids), will sometimes eat things that aren't food. Sometimes this is accidental, such as playing with a toy and ingesting a piece that breaks off, and sometimes it's due to a condition called feline pica.
Feline pica is a medical condition that causes cats to eat non-food items. It has a number of causes, including stress, nutritional deficiencies, and other medical conditions, but the end result can be digestive issues or a serious intestinal obstruction. These non-food items often can't make it through the digestive tract.
Look for signs that your cat has been biting or eating things indoors or outdoors. For example, many cats scratch fabric furniture and then eat the threads or strings that fall off. If you see evidence, contact your vet.
4. Food Intolerances
A food intolerance is when your pet’s digestive system reacts to a trigger food and has trouble breaking down the food or ingredient, causing symptoms like vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and bloating, as well as itchiness or redness. (This is different from a food allergy, which is a reaction by your pet’s immune system.)
As we’ve talked about, food intolerances in cats aren’t very common, but they will create gastrointestinal (GI) problems if your cat has them. Feeding your cat a single type of food for a long time or changing their diet and introducing a new food can sometimes cause a food intolerance to develop. They may also have a stronger reaction to food if:
- Your cat’s food is high in fats: If your cat's diet is high in fatty foods — like beef, pork, lamb, or dairy — it could cause a sensitive stomach. Opt for lean animal proteins, like fish and poultry, if you suspect fat is problematic for your cat.
- Your cat’s food has a fiber imbalance: Cats need fiber, but too much or too little can cause digestive upset. In the wild, cats get fiber from eating the whole prey animal, fur and bones too. Commercial cat foods try to replicate this by adding grains, vegetables, legumes, or other sources. Strike a balance with high-quality cat food that contains enough fiber for your cat’s life stage.
5. Food Allergy
A food allergy occurs when a cat's immune system mistakes an ingredient in the cat's food as a dangerous foreign substance and launches a response. Most of the time a sensitive stomach is not the main symptom, but rather little fluid-filled bumps on the head and neck. Your cat might start scratching, rubbing, or licking their skin because of the discomfort or have a more severe reaction.
Though this can happen, it’s fairly rare. The Merck Manual of Veterinary Medicine says less than 1% of cats in veterinary care had true food allergies.
Foods that commonly cause allergies in cats include:
- Dairy (Cheese, milk, ice cream)
Elimination Diets: The Most Accurate Way to Identify Cat Food Intolerances or Allergies
If you suspect your cat has a food allergy, an elimination diet is the best way to figure it out. This can take 10 to 16 weeks to complete. You can read our guide on how to do an elimination diet for advice on how to do this, but the main step is to stop feeding all foods for 12 weeks except for one protein and one carbohydrate that your cat has never eaten before.
You’ll gradually re-introduce foods one at a time, keeping notes to see which food (if any) causes your pet to have an allergic response again. Keep in mind that this limited ingredient diet is a short-term test, not a long-term fix. Cats need variety in their diets to sustain wellness.
Sensitive Stomachs and Transitioning Your Cat's Food
If you have a cat with a sensitive tummy, transitioning to a new food may help. (We have tips if your dog has a sensitive stomach too.) However, make the transition slowly to avoid creating stress. Gradually switch from your current pet food to the new one, increasing the amount a little bit each day for seven to 14 days. This will give your cat time to adjust to the new diet.
Ingredients That Support Your Cat's Stomach
For cats that have digestive problems or that appear to struggle with an upset stomach often, high-quality pet foods are vital to their wellness. Here are ingredients to look for in food for cats with stomach issues.
Highly Digestible, Common Proteins
Cats should have a diet primarily made up of meat-based protein. Look for easy-to-digest protein sources like chicken, turkey, and low-fat fish.
Quality ingredients matter too. If you have a cat with a sensitive stomach, finding food without a lot of extra fillers, additives, preservatives, and by-products can help reduce symptoms. Keep in mind that any “raw food” cat diet will be the least digestible since your cat’s stomach has to do more work.
A Note about Grain vs. Grain-Free Diets
Grains get a bad rap when it comes to cat food, but this is largely because many kibble-style dry foods and some wet foods are far too high in carbohydrates and gluten. What cats need is a high-protein, low-carb diet. Healthy carbs include sweet potatoes, white potatoes, peas, quinoa, and brown rice.
Feeding your cat a grain-free diet is one way to keep carbs under control. “Grain-free” doesn’t always mean “low-carb,” so be sure to check each brand.
Some fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, are necessary to keep a cat healthy. However, high-fat food options can make digestive problems worse, so avoid high-fat foods like beef, pork, milk, lamb, cheese, and protein.
Hydration is important in helping your cat digest their food well. A cat that gets dehydrated may struggle with constipation, which will only make sensitive stomach issues worse.
Wet cat food or dry cat food that has water added will increase hydration and improve urinary symptoms, digestive systems, and overall wellness. Additionally, dehydrated cat food is especially hydrating, as you add plenty of water to it before serving.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Finally, consider adding probiotics and prebiotics to your cat's diet to support their gut health. For example, you could make a tasty treat with our Instant Goat’s Milk With Probiotics or add it to your cat’s meals. Talk to your veterinarian about what probiotic would best fit your cat's health needs.
Recommended Reading: Cat's and Goat Milk: Everything You Need to Know
Try Transitioning to The Honest Kitchen
Although food may not be the cause of your cat’s sensitive stomach, feeding your cat high-quality meals can prevent digestive issues and give them a longer, healthier life. The Honest Kitchen’s cat food is:
- Full of low-fat protein, like our Grain-Free Chicken Recipe and Grain-Free Turkey Recipe
- Made with easy-to-digest gently dehydrated ingredients
- Boosted with probiotics to aid in digestion, like our Whole Food Clusters and Dehydrated recipes
- Packed with healthy carbs and vegetables
- Tasty — cats can’t get enough!
Shop our entire line of cat foods for meal and treats your cat will love.
Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet’s veterinarian or other healthcare professionals for specific guidance on this topic.