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When your cat begins to make unusual sounds like coughing or gulping, you might wonder if they have a hairball or if it’s something more serious. Acid reflux isn’t just a condition that affects humans; it can affect our feline counterparts.
Acid reflux in cats is more common than you might expect. While it can be distressing and uncomfortable for your cat, there are effective ways to manage and treat it. If your cat regurgitates their food shortly after eating or experiences fits of coughing or gagging, it may indicate acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Keep reading to learn more about acid reflux in cats, its symptoms, and treatment options.
- What is Acid Reflux (GERD)?
- Signs of Acid Reflux in Cats
- Treating Acid Reflux in Cats
- Final Notes
What is Acid Reflux (GERD)?
Acid reflux in cats, also known as gastroesophageal reflux, occurs when stomach acid refluxes – flows backward— into the esophagus. The esophagus is responsible for carrying food and liquid from the mouth to the stomach. However, when acid reflux occurs, it can cause irritation and inflammation.
If your cat experiences acid reflux regularly, they may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is essentially chronic acid reflux. Single or infrequent episodes of acid reflux are typically due to lifestyle factors or diet, but chronic acid reflux — GERD —is often linked to more substantial underlying health issues, potentially indicating a digestive problem.
Unfortunately, GERD can lead to other esophageal issues, such as esophagitis — inflammation of the esophagus — an esophageal ulcer due to inflammation, and esophageal stricture — a narrowing of the esophagus that makes it more challenging to pass liquids and food into the stomach from the mouth.2
Signs of Acid Reflux in Cats
As discussed, acid reflux can lead to inflammation of the esophagus, also known as esophagitis.3 Common acid reflux symptoms in cats include the following:
- Regurgitation: Cats with acid reflux might regurgitate their food after eating. This food never reaches the stomach and is expelled after eating, often appearing undigested.3
- Loss of appetite and difficulty swallowing: Acid reflux in cats may make them less interested in food because it causes discomfort and results in difficulty swallowing.
- Discomfort: Inflammation of the esophagus can cause mild to severe pain, depending on the severity of the acid reflux. If your cat vocalizes while eating or shows signs of discomfort or behavioral changes before, during, or after eating, it may indicate acid reflux.
- Depression: Cats with acid reflux may experience depression because it impacts their quality of life by causing discomfort and pain. Any behavioral changes should be considered as they can be a sign of acid reflux and other conditions.
- Weight loss: If a cat’s acid reflux is affecting their ability to eat, they may lose weight.
Acid reflux in cats is commonly caused by anesthesia because it causes the relaxation of the esophageal sphincter. This muscle acts as a barrier between the stomach and the esophagus. When relaxed, it allows stomach acid to enter the esophagus.1
However, there are several other potential causes of acid reflux in cats, such as:
- Foreign objects: Cats may experience symptoms similar to acid reflux if they have a foreign object stuck in their throat. Often, this leads to regurgitation because the food and water are prevented from making it to the stomach. When the cat attempts to eat, the food may only make it so far as the esophagus, but it will be unable to move to the stomach, creating acid reflux.3 Foreign objects in your cat’s throat are dangerous and can cause significant harm, posing immediate and long-term health risks.
- Diet and nutrition: A diet high in fat can lead to a weakened lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle between the stomach and esophagus. Meanwhile, protein can stimulate the production of stomach acid, raising the likelihood of acid reflux.1 Wet cat food may be beneficial because it provides hydration and can reduce stomach acid.
- Hernia: A hiatal hernia — when the stomach pushes through the diaphragm — can also cause acid reflux.1 A hernia can cause abnormal movement of the stomach, disrupting the LES and making it less effective at preventing the backflow of stomach contents.4
The preferred diagnostic tool for acid reflux in cats is endoscopy, which allows vets to visually examine the esophagus and stomach.1 An endoscopy is a non-surgical procedure that offers a direct visual examination of the area.
During the procedure, the vet inserts a long tube with a light and camera — an endoscope — into the cat’s esophagus through their mouth.3 With endoscopy, the vet uses anesthesia to sedate your pet and look for signs of inflammation, ulcers, and other abnormalities that might contribute to acid reflux.
They may also take biopsy samples as needed, which can be analyzed in a lab to determine the presence of underlying conditions like gastritis or esophagitis.
In order to fully diagnose your cat with acid reflux, vets will also consider their medical records, which will provide context and insight into the cat’s overall health and factors that can influence digestive health.
Treating Acid Reflux in Cats
Acid reflux treatment depends on the underlying cause and its severity. Cats with mild symptoms may not require any treatment, especially if they’re experiencing infrequent episodes. However, cats with more severe symptoms may require immediate intervention, especially if they’re not eating and experience fast weight loss.
Treatment is typically done at home, with your vet providing a treatment plan and instructions to follow.1 Your vet will provide you with information about what to feed your cat while managing their acid reflux. In most cases, you’ll feed them a diet limited in fat and protein.1
In addition, how you feed your cat may make a difference. Smaller meals given more frequently can help manage the symptoms of acid reflux in cats by reducing the stomach acid produced at any given time. This prevents the stomach from overfilling with stomach acid that can travel back up the esophagus.
Vets also prescribe medication to treat and manage acid reflux in cats. Medications like omeprazole can relieve heartburn, difficulty swallowing, and persistent cough associated with acid reflux. In addition, other medications might be used to improve the movement of the stomach contents while strengthening the gastroesophageal sphincter to reduce occurrences of acid reflux.1
In severe cases where an underlying condition like a hiatal hernia is diagnosed, surgical intervention may be necessary. Although rare, surgery can provide a long-term solution for some cats with debilitating acid reflux symptoms.
Regular checkups with your vet are also necessary. Your vet will want to ensure the treatment plan is effectively managing acid reflux symptoms, and it gives you the opportunity to address any concerns you have.
Communicating with your vet, monitoring your cat, and making adjustments to their treatment as necessary can help most cats with acid reflux live happy, healthy lives.
It’s important to keep in mind that you should never treat your cat’s acid reflux with home remedies or human medicines such as Pepto-Bismol. Many human acid reflux remedies can be dangerous for your cat. For instance, Pepto-Bismol contains salicylates that are toxic to cats.1
In addition, treating your cat with home remedies can mask their symptoms. Your feline friend might feel relief, but you’re not actually treating the underlying condition, which could be severely impacting their health and wellness.
How do I know if my cat has acid reflux?
The only true way to know if your cat has acid reflux is to have them examined by a licensed vet. However, there are some signs that you should take your cat to the vet because they potentially have acid reflux, such as:
- Regurgitation: Unlike vomiting, regurgitation is the expulsion of undigested food or water shortly after eating. The contents never make it to the stomach to be digested.
- Difficulty swallowing and/or eating: Cats with acid reflux may appear to have trouble swallowing, often extending their neck while making gulping or gagging noises. They may also show less interest in food and water.
- Behavioral changes: Pain and discomfort can make cats act differently. They may isolate themselves or become less active. Some cats may even experience anxiety and behavioral changes (ie. avoiding food, increased vocalization, pacing).
- Weight loss: Acid reflux can affect a cat’s ability to eat, leading to weight loss.
- Drooling and salivation: Some cats may drool more than usual when experiencing acid reflux as a response to discomfort in their throat.
- Bad breath: Cats with acid reflux may experience bad breath due to the regurgitation of food and stomach acid.
- Loss of voice: Acid reflux can cause your cat to lose their voice due to inflammation of the throat.
If you notice any of these signs, take your cat to the vet as soon as possible because they may indicate acid reflux or GERD. Left untreated, GERD can lead to more severe health issues like damage to the esophagus, causing even more pain or discomfort.
In addition, these signs can be symptoms of other underlying health issues that can worsen over time. Only a veterinarian can accurately diagnose and treat your cat.
What cat food is best for acid reflux?
As part of your cat’s treatment plan, your vet might suggest a change in diet to support their digestive health and prevent occurrences of acid reflux. Typically, a diet low in fat and protein can reduce the pressure on the esophageal sphincter while decreasing stomach acid production.
Your vet may also recommend easily digestible foods and foods high in fiber to reduce the potential for acid reflux by helping food move through the digestive tract easily and absorbing excess stomach acid to promote better digestion.
In addition to changing your cat's diet, your veterinarian may also recommend that you control portion sizes and feeding frequency. Smaller, more frequent meals are generally recommended because they prevent the stomach from getting too full and producing more stomach acid.
As always, consult your vet before changing your cat’s diet, especially when it may impact their health and wellness. In addition, always make a slow, gradual transition from one food to another to prevent digestive upset.
Cat acid reflux may seem like a minor health concern, but it can worsen over time and lead to serious health complications. If you suspect your cat is experiencing acid reflux, make an appointment with a licensed vet as soon as possible.
Fortunately, getting your cat veterinary care is easier than ever with Dutch telemedicine for pets. Schedule an appointment with a Dutch vet today to help diagnose and treat your cat’s acid reflux. We’re available 24/7 to help you and your cat.
“Acid Reflux in Cats.” PetMD, 16 Feb. 2009, www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/digestive/c_ct_gastroesophageal_reflux.
Lynch, Kristle Lee. “Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) - Gastrointestinal Disorders.” Merck Manuals Professional Edition, 21 July 2023, www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gastrointestinal-disorders/esophageal-and-swallowing-disorders/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease-gerd.
Walters, Patricia. “Disorders of the Esophagus in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 19 July 2023, www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/digestive-disorders-of-cats/disorders-of-the-esophagus-in-cats.
“Hernia (Hiatal) in Cats.” PetMD, 28 Jan. 2009, www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/musculoskeletal/c_ct_hiatal_hernia.