What to feed cats with feline IBS, diarrhea, or frequent hairballs

UPDATED 2015 (Radcat added; minor updates)

I’m hearing from more and more cat lovers who are desperate to help their cats resolve colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or disease (IBD) symptoms, such as:

  • diarrhea or loose stools
  • constipation
  • frequent hairballs or vomiting
  • digestive reactions to certain foods (e.g., food allergies)

If you can relate, I’ve got good news to share.

I just saw a terribly stubborn case of feline irritable bowel symptoms healed through natural means. In a series of posts starting with this one, I’ll share everything helpful I learned from that case and other research.

I’ll start by doing my best to answer: “What natural food options might help my cat with these symptoms?”

But first, important: I am not a vet. Get a vet involved in your cat’s condition. Sometimes these are symptoms of intestinal or gastrointestinal cancer – and you want to catch that early.

What are feline IBD and IBS?

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is an inflammatory immune-reaction syndrome in the gastrointestinal tract. We know healing has been possible for many humans and cats, but the roots of the condition have not been well understood, so doctors have not had reliable solutions.

The symptoms are regular bouts of diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting. You may also see mucous or blood in the stool. In some cats the only symptom is weight loss. Some may stop using the litter box because it reminds them painful experiences.

IBS has similar symptoms to IBD, and I believe it’s a precursor to IBD. The difference is that IBD is so inflammatory that it causes damage to the intestines. Besides making everyone miserable, the scary thing about IBD is it can be deadly because:

  • a cat can actually starve from a very serious case of IBD
  • some experts believe the inflammation it causes can lead to the intestinal lymphoma which has become so common in cats 

By the way, sometimes what you think are frequent hairballs are actually IBD symptoms. If you have a cat who gags or throws up hairballs more than once a month, consider it suspicious.

Natural cat food picks for cats with IBS/IBD symptoms

Mainstream vet medicine often puts cats with IBS/IBD symptoms on manufactured “hypoallergenic” foods like Hill’s Z/D, but these foods are often high in carbohydrates (fattening) and low in quality protein. And according to expert Elizabeth Hodgkins, DVM, these foods don’t always work either – at least not for long.

In her book, Your Cat: Simple New Secrets for a Longer, Stronger Life, Dr. Hodgkins explains that for mild cases of IBD, grain-free canned diets are helpful.

For tougher cases, she prescribes a grain-free raw diet of ground meat with cat-appropriate vitamin and essential-fatty-acid supplements mixed in – she refers to this as a “the most complete cure.”

I agree with her on both accounts. And I have also noticed (and know as a human nutritionist)  that simple foods are the best for digestive issues. I have seen cats that do not do well with foods that have a lot of ingredients, even fruits and vegetables. (More on those in a moment.)

For more on grains and the feline digestive track, please see this post by Fern Crist, DVM and this article by Dr. Becker

Therefore…

First choice 

My first choice of natural cat foods from my “Best” list with the most simple, digestive-friendly formulas are:

  • Radcat raw*. This one is my (and our cats’) personal favorite because it doesn’t include ground bones, which are difficult for some cats (like ours) to digest. Very high quality.
  • Hound & Gatos canned. Good quality, simple ingredients. Several different formulas. Also available at Pet Food Express stores.
  • Feline Pride raw*. Nice, clean raw food; recommended by Dr. Hodgkins. You can order it online if you can’t get it from a local store
  • Pure Vita canned. Simple ingredients, grain-free, low carb.
  • Tiki Cat Koolina Luau and Puka Puka Luau canned. Very simple recipes, but the only option is chicken.

Primal’s raw cat foodhas also significantly helped cats with IBD. The formulas are not as simple as Feline Pride or Radcat (it has more vegetables and fiber), but Primal is easier to buy locally, so if it works for your cat, great!

*Note that, due to slightly higher bacteria risk, raw may not be ideal for cats with cancer or otherwise severely weakened immunity.

Often IBD cats develop an intolerance for common meats they eat regularly, like chicken. 

They may do better with less common ones like duck and venison. Feline Pride offers some helpful options there because they have a variety of meats to choose from. Hound & Gatos have a variety as well. Primal now has a Pheasant formula.

In a pinch

If those foods don’t work for you for some reason, you could dip into the 2nd choice brands that offer other types of meats in the most simple formulas, like Life’s Abundance Instinctive Choice cannedBecause Life’s Abundance only sells by the case, online, I suggest getting their trial size first, but most cats seem to love it.

If you want to feed raw food to constipated cats

With some cats, constipation is made worse by foods with ground bones – most raw recipes have ground bones in them. When that’s the case, then you could make homemade raw food with one of these complete supplements.

Please keep in mind that cats can die without enough of certain key nutrients so you need to follow very specific instructions if you want to start a homemade raw diet.

My current supplement favorites for making homemade cat food:

  • Feline Instincts Supplement: They provide a recipe and nutrient supplement, which makes it easy to make sure your cat gets what they need. For constipated cats, I recommend the “No Bones About It” version.
  • Alnutrin Supplement: A good supplement and recipe for bone-free homemade cat food. You can request a free sample here, and they include the simple recipe.

Homemade food caveats: Other than getting the nutrients wrong, the other risk with making bone-free food you don’t grind yourself is that the meat may have unhealthy bacteria. I’ve been told not to use packaged meat raw, and that even fresh ground meat from a butcher may not be pure enough. Fresh unground meat is a safer choice. You could also cook the meat and then add supplement afterward. (You have to add the supplement after cooking, otherwise cooking will degrade critical nutrients, like taurine.) Alas, cooked meat is less digestible than raw meat.

What about vegetables? Do cats need some fiber?

For many IBS or IBD cats, the fiber in vegetables only causes more trouble—with one exception: for constipated cats who respond well to cooked pumpkin or squash, a little pumpkin or squash are good to add to their food because it prevents constipation.

I also like pumpkin and squash because they don’t contain disaccharides, which feed the bad bacteria.

Disacchar-what? Basically, vegetables that are high in disaccharides much more readily feed the bad bacteria at the root of inflammatory bowel conditions. This means cats with digestive trouble should avoid high-disaccharide ingredients like:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • FOS (fructooligosaccharides) – a fiber “prebiotic”

What if no food on earth is working out?!

Sometimes a new food works for a while, and then the symptoms flare up again. Such was the case with my friend’s cat.

This happens with tough cases of IBS or IBD.  First, I would stick with whatever simple foods cause the least reaction. Secondly, I’d assume a deeper healing of the gut is needed – that was the missing piece that solved my friend’s cat’s problems!

Stay tuned for that story in an upcoming post (update: it’s here). In the mean time, here’s a hint: seek help from customer service at Vitality Science. They are amazing and will get your cat on the gut healing path I’m talking about.

What’s your experience? 

I welcome your cat’s story here – we can all learn from each other!

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183 Responses to What to feed cats with feline IBS, diarrhea, or frequent hairballs

  1. Simone April 25, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

    Hello, it’s Simone from Brazil. I’ve recently posted about my cat with food ‘allergies’, and it’s been a week now that I’ve taken him off dry food completely. I’m feeding him only raw meat, a recipe made by a vet specialized in nutrition. He has no diarrhea anymore! He went from explosive liquid diarrhea 5 times a day to tiny stools once or twice a day, since his bowels are ‘adjusting’ to this new diet. This is a victory 🙂

  2. Scott May 30, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    What kind of raw meat diet? My cat has lost so much weight, and i was giving him moist and dry, but the explosive diarrhea now and the gas was unbearable. Trying to figure something out,I feel sorry for her.

  3. Dara J Klatsky June 1, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

    My cat has been having bloody stools/diarrhea for 6 months now. His sister has bouts of blood in her stool but not as often as him. He has it every time he goes.-not always diarrhea but always blood. The vet said its colitis- he was on antibiotics for a week and the blood stopped, once he was off the antibiotics it came back. Ive been trying different foods to see what helps. The vet suggested I give him pumpkin or metamusol. Ive been giving him pumpkin but that doesnt seem to help. He has no problem eating anything. He eats whatever he can get his paws on. I’m trying to find a food that will help with this. They get wet and dry food in the amount of calories they should consume to maintain a healthy weight daily. Everytime I switched food it was over a weeks time to help them get used to it and ween out the old food.
    Ive had him on:

    Tiki Cat Puka Puka Luau Succulent Chicken in Chicken Consomme
    Tiki Cat Koolina Luau Chicken with Egg in Chicken Consomme Canned
    Redbarn Naturals Chicken Stew Grain-Free Canned Cat Food
    BFF Tuna & Pumpkin Valentine Recipe in Gravy Canned Cat Food(they get this about twice a week)

    Orijen Cat & Kitten Dry Cat Food
    Nature’s Variety Instinct Grain-Free Chicken Meal Formula Dry Cat Food
    Wellness CORE Grain-Free Indoor Formula Dry Cat Food, 2-lb bag

    Please help!

    • Rob June 7, 2016 at 9:36 pm #

      I’ve tried every food you listed plus more. I previously had her on vet diets and they did improve the situation, but didn’t resolve it. I know how you feel. I’ve finally had luck with Blue Basics Turkey recipe (I imagine duck would be good also). I’ve had the first formed normal/dark looking stool in months. I highly recommend giving it a shot. I know it’s dry .. but it’s definitely working for now and once she is stabilized I might venture into their wet choices for this as well.

  4. Tanas Mackay June 2, 2016 at 6:43 am #

    Hi
    I’m from Australia, I am cooking my guys. Hormone free chicken and organic natures gift. However natures gift is no longer supplying or making it. So my boy Tommy was constipated before then recently a bout of the runs, with a bit of blood at the end. So atm I’ve done a broth with rice lamb chicken and it has completely settled. This is short term lots of work and I can’t find anywhere in Aus for 1. Supplement to add and 2. Organic tin food. I’m not keen on them eating dry they where on a vets formula for breakie.
    At a loss, as he seems to flare up occasionally with diarrhoea if I give other tin food. Now keeping a food and toilet diary.
    His bloods from the vets very good and races around silly still. He’s now nearly 11. It’s ironic as this all started after my 16 year old male passed last September. Stress maybe.
    Any websites that ship to Australia would be helpful. Thanks Tanas

  5. Joann T June 11, 2016 at 11:23 pm #

    My 10 year old male tabby cat was having problems with vomiting. After undergoing an ultrasound, it was determined that he had IBS. The vet said he needed a hypoallergenic cat food, but my cat did not like the hypoallergenic cat food and would not eat it. I had a quandary on my hand. Per the vet’s advice, I gave my cat a quarter of a Pepsid AC. Since my cat did not eat the hypoallergenic food, I was trying to give him a high protein, low fat, low carbohydrate food. My cat would have good days, but mostly bad days. After reading several blogs about cats with IBS, the common factor that seemed to appear to help cats with IBS was feeding them a raw food diet. I decided to give raw cat food a try. I started with Chicken RadCat Raw Cat Food since a lot of sights rated it number one. I’m happy to say that after one week, my cat has stopped vomiting and I no longer give him Pepsid AC. He no longer is withdrawn and goes outside now and plays. Instead of sleeping all day under the foot stool, he is outside playing and starting sleeping in his cat tree. I tried several cat food that were high in protein and low in fat and carbohydrates, but nothing seemed to work. I was dealing with this issue for about 8 months. My cat underwent a blood test and x-rays that came out negative. It wasn’t until he had the ultrasound that confirmed his problem of IBS. I plan to change his diet every 3-4 months so that he doesn’t develop a problem with the chicken. I found a lot of very useful information from the website healthypets.mercola.com. I know it’s only been 1 week without vomiting, but my cat is now eating and is his normal self. I can only hope he begins to gain the weight he lost. Will keep you updated on his progress.

  6. allisonjaynes June 18, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    Hi everyone,
    I’ve had great success with isolating one uncommon protein – such as beef – and feeding only that. It’s tricky since even so-called ‘beef’ canned food often has chicken liver or other animal protein in it, so you have to be quite careful. Hound and Gatos, and Instinct are two great brands with ‘clean’ beef options. There are some others, too, for variety. For treats, Orijen makes an all-beef dehydrated dog treat that the cats love. I haven’t tried raw foods yet…

    Squishy was vomiting almost daily for a while. It was very scary (not to mention messy). On the new diet, she hasn’t vomited once in the past 4 months! She is still underweight and eating too much without gaining weight, so I might try more gut-healing supplements. But I wanted to share this story for others’ benefit.

  7. Madeline June 21, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    I was happy to read this post. I’ve been battling IBS with my cat for the last 3 years. The vet prescribed budesonide 1mg daily which came from a specialty pharmacy. He took that for a little more than a year and then was weaned. I also add the contents of one full Metamucil capsule to each 3 oz serving of his food. All of that seemed to help along with identifying the proteins that seem to aggravate the problem. Chicken and turkey are definitely out for my cat. I tried salmon, venison, beef and rabbit — and for my cat, only beef and rabbit are keepers. I give him Instinct Rabbit and Purina One Classic Beef pate. And he gets lots of steak treats (which I sear on each side before feeding. So it’s red on the inside but cooked on the outside.) I feel bad because he loves dry food but it always seems to be a problem, even if there isn’t any evidence of problematic meat ingredients. I’d like to find a good recipe for making healthy dry food — something without too much carbohydrate and something that he’d like to eat.

  8. Jennifer Morris June 26, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    Please help, I have a 15 year old bruiser who went from 16 lbs. to about 8 lbs now and skin and bones. He lost most of the weight in the last 6-8 months. First he had labs with the only abnormally of high esophils blood count, indicating either tape worms or lymphoma. His kidney, liver and thyroid were all good. After tx for tape worms he continued to lose weight and the vet said food allergy. I tried every brand of food, for cats with gastro problems and he continued to lose weight and just seems lackluster and not interested in eating. After more weight loss and more research I called the vet this week and said I want an ultrasound. I am in the medical field and I don’t want my pet to die because he is not being treated as best as necessary. Initial ultrasound showed no lymphoma but some fluid around one kidney. Needle biopsy was done and cytology report came back negative as did of lymphoma.The vet put him on antibiotics as a attempt to fix things. I am still waiting for rest of reports. He just doesn’t seem to have much appetite, doesn’t even smell food I offer, he seems to like only gravy, by the way, all his fangs have been pulled but one, so I don’t think it is a dental problem. I am desperate to try and save a family member who appears to be dying for no apparent reason other then imflammatory bowel syndrome. What do you suggest? If vet said he has cancer then I would have accepted and made him comfortable, but I feel he is slowly dying from something that should be able to be fixed. I had a cat in the past who had to have a peg tube and I WILL not do that again. Thanks so much for any feedback. I have had the same vet for all my cats for 15 years and have complete faith in him, he is at a loss too.

    • Clara Diaz June 26, 2016 at 8:21 am #

      Hey Jennifer,
      Recently I went through the same thing you are going through. I was at my wits end, but I never stop searching for a solution. I would recommend acupuncture, yes accupuncture saved my cats life. I also change her food, I stopped feeding her chicken and fish. Went to a single based protein. I feed her a high fatty brand called Mauri–Wild Brushtail Entree which she loves and is still on this food. We took her off of dry food, since it was very hard on her. I was told by her Dr.that dry soaks up all the moisture in their stomach. She was withering and was skin and bones. We kept her on vitality Science probiotics, steroids and Acupuncture. With all of these changes she is back to get normal weigh and a happy little girl. It’s my hope that you find a good solution for your Brusier. 💞💖😻

  9. Scott June 27, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    Hey guys…follow up, I started giving my cat fancy feast moist KITTEN food in the morning and the night to keep her hydrated, as well as Royal Canin Veterinary diet Hydrolyzed Protein Adult HP (amazon or your vet). Kind of pricey on this, I think $50 for a 7.7lb bag, BUT since switching over to these 2, there is no more vomiting, and the diarrhea has stopped completely now for4 weeks!! My cat looks better, runs around again, and went from 4.8lbs to 6.4lbs!! After I thought there was no end in sight, This has done it. I recommend this, I promise, you will see an improvement after a couple days, so don’t quit if its not within 24 hours, again, this will do the trick!!

  10. Vicki July 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    My 19 year old kitty has battled IBD for several years. I had all but given up throwing money away on treatments and unappealing foods recommended by his vet. I’ve spent years dealing with explosive diarrhea and vomiting. After reading your review, I decided to give the Hounds and Gatos brand a try. Raw diets weren’t an option as he is a grazer…I now have tried all the flavor offerings to test whether my boy will eat it and if it helps with his potty issues. I am so relieved to share that the lamb flavor was the magic potion! He is experiencing his first solid stools in years! I cried the first time I discovered it was working. He appears to be putting on weight and instead of exploding several times a day, he has one or two mostly normal bm’s a 24 hr period. Thank you so much for your guidance. I know he is so much more comfortable and this fur mommy is thrilled beyond words!

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