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

UPDATED 2021 (Answers raw food 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:

  • Radcatraw*. 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 UPDATE: Rad Cat no longer in business : (
  • NEW Answers Raw Cat Food, Detailed Formula, fermented with whey. Great clean ingredients and the food is is easy to digest because the whey helps break down the proteins. Plus, the whey also helps product against bacteria risk. This food has made a HUGE difference for our GI-lymphoma-surviving IBD cat.
  • Hound & Gatos canned. Good quality, simple ingredients. Several different formulas. Also available at Pet Food Express stores.
  • Pure Vita canned. Simple ingredients, grain-free, low carb.
  • Tiki Cat Koolina Luau canned and Puka Puka Luau. Very simple recipes.
  • Life’s Abundance Instinctive Choice canned. Again, simple and our cats love it. Because Life’s Abundance only sells by the case, online, I suggest getting their trial size first, but most cats seem to love it.

Primal’s raw cat foodhas also significantly helped some cats with IBD. The formulas are not as simple (it has vegetables, fiber, and ground bones), 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.

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

  1. Casey JONES June 21, 2021 at 3:04 pm #

    Has anyone tried fecal transplant pills?

    • Gail June 22, 2021 at 5:20 pm #

      I did – it was good results – mine came from animalbiome.com
      I also HUGHLY suggest this Facebook page and website
      IBDkitties
      Indkitties.net
      A WEALTH OF INFORMATION

      • Casey R Jones June 22, 2021 at 10:18 pm #

        I have the fecal pills from animal biome actualy! Just been nervous to try them. My girl has little to no teeth so I would have to put it in her wet food and I worry she could choke. Maybe I am over thinking it. Animalbiome staff has been so helpful! Right now starting my girl on slippery elm syrup to calm the cramps down that she has after bms. We tried the Saccharomyces boulardii they recomended but it gave her diarrhea. Going on 6 months of this and on 3rd food change. Any advice would be greatly appriciated!

        • Gail Bohan June 23, 2021 at 10:53 am #

          Casey – Can you pill her? That’s how my girl got hers.
          Slippery elm make sure you give 30 + mins before or after food pills since it coats the digestive track and nothing can get thru.
          Did animalboime say you could open the pill and put it on her food?
          Have you tried a raw diet? That helped my girl. I tried all the novelty proteins and expensive food with no luck. My girl was also on PREDnisolne to reduce inflammation. Also what about a human probiotic?
          You really should look at ibdkitties.net. This is where I found all this info, as well as their facebook page.

          • Casey R Jones June 24, 2021 at 11:03 am #

            Thank you. I have been to that site and many others. The probiotic was recomended by animalbiome. I cant pill her because that stresses her out and we are avoiding triggering the inflammation to get worse. They did not recomend opening the pills because it wont work as well. As for the slippery elm I am considering giving it with every small meal throughout the day to possibly relive these cramps after she poops. So heartbreaking to watch. She is on a decent diet at this time. I think we are battling the campylobacter and unbalance of bacteria right now. I have a 3rd dr appoinement at a cat only vet Tuesday and I really hope they know what they are doing. I dont wamt to give steroids. I want to heal her gut. Raw possibly in the future but it submits her to more campylobacter expossure so I dont think her system could fight that at this time. Everyday is a struggle though. I’ll just keep giving her the slippery elm and rx clay for now I guess.

  2. nguyenquankt June 1, 2021 at 12:58 am #

    Thích nghe suy nghĩ của bạn,

  3. Jeremy Shabat May 27, 2021 at 11:26 am #

    One of my cats has similar symptoms. He’s currently eating Hill’s prescription gastrointestinal biome and gets a daily envelope of Fortiflora. The combination has dealt with the diarrhea but hasn’t identified the cause. He had an ultrasound this week and they found a thickening in the muscularis layer of his small intestines which could be related to IBS. Next is a GI blood panel to check his folate levels and something else I can’t remember before formulating a treatment plan for the IBS.

  4. Jan March 8, 2021 at 7:29 pm #

    I’m desperately seeking advice/help for my 7 month old kitten. From the day I adopted him (10 weeks), he has had chronic diarrhea.
    Whatever is going on in him has caused flare-ups that have put him in the ER vet twice and back and forth to various vets trying to figure out the cause. His ER trips were due to flare ups causing his colon to completely stop functioning temporarily (creating a total blockage) that resolved itself over time.

    We’ve tried grain-free, GI prescription food (hills and RC), and have had the most luck with what he’s currently on, limited ingredient duck and pea food.

    He’s been on and off metronidazole (which helps tremendously) but the diarrhea is back as soon as he stops taking it.

    He’s currently on fortiflora as well.

    Right now, his pools are semi-solid, though stinky and 2-3x/day.

    I’m thinking there has to be something we’re missing, and am dying to know if it’s a good allergy or a gut biome issue.

    I’m running out of funds to help this guy and he’s only 7 months old. Desperate for any assistance!

    • RJ April 1, 2021 at 12:53 pm #

      Jan, please ask your vet(s) to consider a fecal culture to rule out nasty bacteria such as e-coli-, campylobacter, salmonella, etc – the metronidazole may not be targeting one or more of these bacteria, so a culture might show something else. Might also consider ruling out giardia. Lastly, rule out viral disease, because Felv, FIV, etc can all cause diarrhea. An ultrasound would be extremely helpful to look at potential intestinal wall thickness, growths, or nearby organs that may be enlarged or a congenital defect that might be affecting his GI system. If none of these diagnostics confirm anything, ask your vet to consult with a veterinary internist.

      • Kim April 24, 2021 at 3:22 pm #

        I had a bangle with severe IBS. Testing testing testing! My advice would be before you have any more testing , slowly move over to Royal Canin cat food ( specific for bangles.)!Not sure what it is that is in it, not only did it stop the diarrhea, my cat now is round like his Mama !

        • Kim April 24, 2021 at 3:23 pm #

          Bengal ( auto correct)

    • Sandra Cuming April 23, 2021 at 5:42 am #

      Jan not all infections show up on the standard stool check at the vet. it may need to go to a centre that does more advanced testing. No doubt in my mind at that age your kitten has an infection that is not responding to standard treatments. 🐈

      • Jan April 24, 2021 at 6:39 am #

        Thanks for everyone’s input. We had blood and PCR testing done. He came back negative for FIV/felv thank goodness. His results came back as having extremely high clostridium levels. The vet suggested a long course of antiobiotics, though she said clostridium levels are often chronic, as cats should be able to deal with them on their own without symptoms. She suggested it is likely a systemic issue.

        We tried a raw diet out of desperation, and this has completely cleared up his diarrhea (going on a week now!!). I have no idea what this means for his health/condition, but am happy we at least have a fix for now.

        • Emma July 12, 2021 at 3:23 pm #

          Hi Jan,

          My kitten is having chronic diarrhea as well. He’s on halo kibble which seems to at least help with the diarrhea but he still has very soft/mucusy poop. Any dietary change seemed to cause diarrhea again. I have taken him to the vet on multiple occasions and he does not bacteria infection or parasites.

          If you dont mind sharing, what raw food did you have your cat try and what kind of meat? How long of a transition period did it take to fully switch your cat to raw? Thank you !!!

          • Gilda Provenzano July 12, 2021 at 3:48 pm #

            Have you tried probiotics? I get the powdered one from Chewy.

            • Emma July 12, 2021 at 3:51 pm #

              Yes. I sprinkle probiotics on his food everyday but it doesn’t seem to help that much. Still soft poop on a good day. Canned food seem to cause diarrhea. Halo kibble has helped but still no solid poop.
              I’ve heard good things about raw diet for cats with chronic diarrhea, so I’m hoping that’s the cure I’m looking for.

              • Gilda Provenzano July 12, 2021 at 6:18 pm #

                Good luck! My friend Donna also said to add cooked white rice to food.

              • Casey R Jones July 12, 2021 at 6:46 pm #

                I recently switched my cats to royal canin hydrolized rabit dry and stopped all systoms within 5 days!

              • Susan Bremner July 13, 2021 at 7:13 am #

                I tried every cat food under the sun for my 2 Manx cats. The little female kept having poop stick to her 2 inch curly tail and down her bum. She was very skinny and always diahrrea and vomit. After cleaning her up once one year, the vet recommended putting her down which I did about 2 years ago. I couldn’t clean her myself because she was semi feral and couldn’t pick her up.
                Now I just have the male who always had diahrrea and frequently vomit. He is on Royal Canin hypoallergenic dry food. I tried him on the canned and he wouldn’t eat it. Finally decided to just stick to Friskies Turkey pate (he has no teeth) and he’s been fine for months!

          • Jan July 13, 2021 at 6:15 am #

            Hi Emma,
            I live in Canada, so got a pure raw food at the pet store (NO added vegetables/fruits). I started him just doing home cooked chicken breast, turkey, tuna to first start the transition and determine if there were any food allergies. He never did well with any sort of fish, we determined (most commercial foods have some sort of fish oil).
            I then started the raw food from the pet store (there are lots of recipes online to make your own, as well). It just requires some meat, some animal organ, and some suggest adding in bone as well.
            Again, I first starting microwaving it to partially cook, and then weaned off of that. It has resolved all of his issues. Every time he’s accidentally eaten kibble, its instant diarrhea (smelly and mucus), but resolves once it’s out of his system and back to the raw food.

            • Gilda Provenzano July 13, 2021 at 8:46 am #

              Being in cat rescue for over 20 years and listening to vets over the years fish of any kind is not good. Makes diarrhea much worse.

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