Upset Stomach in Cats (Feline Gastritis)

Source: PetWave, Updated on October 24, 2016

Definition of Gastritis in Cats

Gastritis is inflammation of the lining of the stomach. It is common in companion cats, although many times the underlying cause is never identified. Gastritis can cause a number of gastrointestinal signs in cats, the most common of which are vomiting, intense abdominal pain, lack of appetite, increased water intake, weakness and lethargy. The vomitus from affected cats is frequently frothy, bile-tinged and flecked with blood. In chronic cases, the vomit can contain digested blood that looks like wet coffee grounds. Acute gastritis can come on suddenly and severely, usually shortly after some form of dietary indiscretion. Chronic gastric is generally associated with more mild symptoms.

Causes of Gastritis in Cats

There are many causes of gastritis in cats. Gastritis in cats is most often caused by eating spoiled meats or from food allergies. Cats can also experience gastritis if they are exposed to certain types of bacteria, and cats with weakened immune systems may also be more prone to gastritis. Gastritis can affect cats of all breeds and all ages.

Acute Gastritis

Acute gastritis is most commonly associated with food poisoning, overeating, eating something rotten or otherwise inappropriate or a bacterial or viral gastrointestinal infection. Food allergies, toxins from fertilizers and household cleaners, antifreeze and other plant or chemical irritants are also common causes of acute gastritis. Irritating drugs, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and steroids, can contribute to the acute onset of gastritis. Acute gastritis almost always involves intense abdominal pain.

Chronic Gastritis

Chronic gastritis usually results from long-term disruption of the normal flora of the stomach. Gastritis can occur in cats that have eaten undigestible materials such as plastic or string, or if exposed to certain types of bacteria, particularly bacteria from the Helicobacter genus. If these objects “sit” in the stomach without being passed through the gastrointestinal tract, they can irritate the stomach lining, with associated inflammation and discomfort. While cats have strong digestive systems, they can be allergic to dairy products, food preservatives, food colorings, and some types of meats.

Underlying Medical Condition

Cats that are infected with viruses that weaken their immune system, such as feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, can often experience gastritis illnesses. Due to the cat’s weak immune system, viruses and bacteria that would normally be fought off affect the cat’s digestive system causing inflammation of the stomach tissues. Parasites, stress, neoplasia (cancer) and other systemic diseases (kidney disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, hypoadrenocorticism) have also been associated with gastritis in cats.

The best way to prevent acute gastritis is to prevent your cat’s access to garbage, toxic plants and chemicals and other inappropriate but possibly edible things. Chronic cases can be more challenging diagnostically and difficult to prevent. Of course, a healthy diet, free access to fresh water and a safe household environment are always important.

Diagnosing Gastritis in Cats

Gastritis refers to inflammation of the lining of the stomach and is among the most common stomach disorders in cats and dogs. Gastritis in cats is normally diagnosed based upon the animal’s history, clinical signs, physical examination findings and response to treatment. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means ruling out other causes of the associated vomiting and discomfort. In chronic or severe cases of gastritis, blood tests, radiographs (x-rays), and biopsy of the tissue lining the stomach may be necessary to conclusively arrive at a diagnosis.

Gastritis can be chronic or acute. Most acute cases of gastritis in cats are caused by food poisoning, overeating or bacterial or viral infections. Affected animals suffer severe abdominal pain and intermittent bouts of vomiting. Most acute cases resolve through a response to treatment. Your veterinarian may recommend withholding food and giving anti-inflammatory medications even before a conclusive diagnosis is made. Most cats with acute dietary gastritis will improve relatively quickly with this simple medical management.

Cats with severe or chronic gastritis will need to undergo further diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the condition. Blood tests can help rule out systemic disease, and radiographs or ultrasound can be used to identify obstructions, tissue thickening and inflammation of the digestive tract. In cases where non-invasive treatments are not improving the cat’s clinical condition, the veterinarian may recommend surgical examination of the stomach and tissue biopsies for microscopic examination and culture. The stomach can be explored and biopsied through an endoscopic procedure while the cat is sedated.

Treating Gastritis in Cats

Treatment options for cats suffering from gastritis include withholding or restricting access to food, correcting dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, identifying and removing the underlying cause, and in some cases prescription medications and supportive care. Most cases can be managed on an outpatient basis. Surgery is sometimes necessary.

Cases of mild or acute gastritis typically are treated by withholding food for at least 24 hours, and maybe longer if recommended by the veterinarian. This gives the cat’s stomach time to recover and the inflammation time to subside. Normally water is not withheld, but it should be offered in small quantities every few hours. Cats with gastritis tend to become dehydrated and quite thirsty; however, drinking large amounts of water at one time can cause further irritation and vomiting when the stomach lining is already tender. When food is reintroduced, it should be soft, low in fat and highly digestible. Cats should be fed multiple small meals daily until their clinical signs are resolved. It may be helpful to feed a late-night meal to help reduce the chances of early morning bouts of vomiting from empty stomach gastric distress.

In severe or chronic cases, the veterinarian will have to determine the cause of the gastritis in order to determine an appropriate treatment protocol. If a bacterial infection is found, antibiotics can be prescribed to treat the condition. If the gastritis is being caused by an underlying medical condition (such as kidney or liver disease or pancreatitis), appropriate steps should be taken to resolve or manage that condition to alleviate the gastric inflammation. Supportive therapies including subcutaneous or intravenous fluid administration, electrolyte regulation and nutritional supplementation may also be necessary.

If the gastritis is due to a tumor or foreign object lodged in the cat’s stomach, surgical removal of the object is probably the only realistic treatment option.

Special Notes

Gastritis in cats (and dogs) is normally a diagnosis of exclusion, which means ruling out other causes of the vomiting and discomfort. In chronic or severely acute cases of gastritis, blood tests, radiographs and biopsy of the tissue lining the stomach may be necessary to diagnose the precise cause of the problem. In most cases, gastritis is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. Most affected cats respond well to treatment and do not normally require hospitalization or surgery, although sometimes they cannot be avoided.