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

UPDATED 2015 (Radcat added)

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 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.)

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 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. Best online price may be at http://wholepetsholistic.com. 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 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.

In a pinch

If those foods don’t work for you for some reason, you could dip into the “Runner’s up list and 2nd choice brands that offer other types of meats in the most simple formulas: Natural Balance LID (Limited Ingredient Diet) canned cat foods and 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, fiber only causes more trouble.

I would avoid them, with one exception, which requires some explanation: Foods high in disaccharides much more readily feed the bad bacteria at the root of inflammatory bowel conditions.

This means we should avoid high-disaccharide ingredients like:

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

But, for constipated cats, if they respond well to cooked pumpkin or squash, then a little pumpkin or squash are fine to add to their food because those don’t have the disaccharides that feed the bad bacteria.

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

  1. Matilda February 4, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    My cat has IBS and foods high in protein give her explosive diarrhea. Raw food may be the thing that her bowels react most violently to. It’s frustrating because I want to keep hear healthy but I’m also tired of cleaning liquid kitty poo.

    • Nick Anderson May 15, 2015 at 10:39 am #

      I tried everything, and almost had to put my boy down on many occasions due to his condition and losing what seemed like a pound over night at times. The only cure was ‘Rad Cat’ raw food. He loves it, and it has made him stable. No vomiting, no diarrhea, he has solid brown stool now. It is expensive, and working with Raw takes patience, but if you love your cat and you have this extremely frustrating condition. This is the cure in my opinion. (Male tabby colored cat, he is about to turn 20)(no i do not work for rad cat).

      • Liz-cat May 18, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

        Nick, this is great news about your cat and what a difference your new diet for him made! Thank you so much for sharing!

      • Liz-cat May 18, 2015 at 11:39 pm #

        Good grief, I just realized that I hadn’t listed Radcat in this post, even though it’s my favorite and been on my “Best cat foods” page for ages. What an oversight! Thank you for calling it to my attention!

  2. Meghan Ragle February 23, 2015 at 6:01 am #

    Going Crazy with out kitty’s IBD– Royal Canine seemed wo work for about a month. Now he seems sick of it and hungry- but doesn’t want that food! I am at a loss!

    • Karen February 23, 2015 at 7:06 am #

      The only thing that helps my cat is my own remedy. It came from a lot of trial and error (and expensive canned and dry prescription food – which never helped her). I mix one 32 oz tub of plain, non-fat Dannon yogurt with one small can (15 oz, I think) Libby’s pumpkin (not pie mix, just pure pumpkin) and one can (about 10 oz) any brand chicken, light or dark meat. The brands seem to matter except the chicken. I sprinkle about 1/8 cup of dry over the top to let her have something crunchy. She loves it and it’s given her regular stools. Without it, she goes back to diarrhea immediately. I mix 3 batches (3 of each item) in a large bowl and pour the mix back in the yogurt containers to keep in the fridge. Don’t drain the chicken, the water adds a lot of flavor to the mix. (Pour chicken in first and break it up with a fork or gloved hand.) Let me know if it works for your cat.

      • Jean March 26, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

        Karen – that sounds like a fantastic idea to try! Thank you for sharing it!! My sweet IBD/IBS suffering kitty seems to crave yogurt, so I always share mine (Yoplait), but for her I would definitely try your brand mix. Who knows…I may be eating it right alongside her because of my intestinal damage from years of undiagnosed sevete gluten intolerance/celiac disease! And Ivm only half-joking about trying it myself! :)

        • Karen March 26, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

          You’re welcome! Hope it works for your kitty (and you!).

  3. Eric February 27, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    My cat was diagnosed with IBD several months ago. The specialist that diagnosed him wanted me to put him on Royal Canine prescription food. We explained to the vet that could not work because I have two cats and they have to be on the same food. I explained, also, that my other cat is diabetic and that Royal Canine sends my cats blood levels through the roof. She looked at us like we were crazy. So, against her wishes, we slowly switched over to raw. My IBD cat made a full recovery and I never seen them have as much energy as they do. Two 12 year old cats were acting like kittens again. Problem is, at about the same time, both cats refused to eat the raw. We tried everything. Switching protein sources, every sprinkle you could imagine, etc. Nothing will work. So that’s why I’m here. To see what canned foods they both can eat and the foods you mentioned would work for both cats. Thanks for the advice.

  4. Rachel Lindsey March 31, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

    I have a foster cat that is 15 years old due to her age and probably a not pretty background she is missing teeth. Due to her missing teeth she often has trouble eating dry food properly. She wont eat very much and often throws up whole pieces because she can’t digest them. Since I brought her home from the shelter she has been eating wet food. She has constant diarrhea and often doesn’t seem to be able to control when she will have it. She is also very thin, one of the main reasons I decided to foster her. I am worried shes losing everything she eats but don’t want to put her on dry food because then she wont eat very much. Hopefully one of these work.

    • Karen March 31, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

      I replied earlier about my special mix for my cat (large plain nonfat yogurt, 1 can of chicken w/ water & 1 can pumpkin – not pie mix). She is also very thin. I always try a different food (just a little) to see if one agrees with her. She’s on Purina One Smartblend for kittens now. I thought I’d give kitten food a try since it’s supposed to be easy to digest. She’s doing great on it (it’s only been a week, though).

  5. Cindy Joshi April 17, 2015 at 3:43 am #

    My cat was diagnosed with IBS. At first, monthly steroid shots were helping him. Now, they do not seem to help. He doesn’t have diarrhea. He has vomiting. I have five other cats so it’s hard to feed him anything special without the other cats eating the same diet. I have them on Royal Canine rabbit and pea. The cats seem to like that food but he is still vomiting. I hope someone can help me with suggestions. I’ve had him since he was 8 weeks old and he’s about 10 years old now.

    • K. Coppock April 17, 2015 at 7:28 am #

      I wrote about my cat eating the canned chicken (any), pumpkin (not pie mix) and yogurt (plain, fat free or lowfat). She’s perfect on it. Any time I try something else (to see if I can quit the mix), she goes right back to diarrhea. I was forced to separate my cats. I have an enclosed patio that works well.

      • Gail April 20, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

        Karen how long was she on this mixture before you saw results?

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