Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cat Facts: 7 Stops Along Your Cat's Digestive System

The digestive system of the cat is a lot like ours. After all, we're both mammals, and our organ structures are very similar. But there are some crucial differences because the cat evolved to be an obligate carnivore, while we humans can eat pretty much anything we want. Take a trip with me through your cat's digestive system and find out what makes your cat tick.

This diagram shows almost every part of the cat' digestive system. The pancreas, however, is not illustrated, presumably because it's behind the stomach and not visible from this angle. Cat anatomy diagram by Shutterstock

1. The mouth

Typically a cat swallows her food in chunks rather than chewing: cat teeth don't have flat chewing surfaces like ours, and cat jaws only move up and down, while ours can move from side to side to aid in the chewing of vegetables and other such material. The tongue positions the food for shredding and tearing and mixes it with saliva to start the breakdown of carbohydrates.

2. The esophagus

After the tongue pushes the food toward the throat, the muscles in this 12- to 15-inch-long tube move it down to the stomach.

Cat' teeth are uniquely designed for grinding and shearing meat and breaking bones. Cat teeth, CC-BY-SA by Gabriel González

3. The stomach

From the esophagus, the food passes through a sphincter (a ring of muscles) into the stomach itself. Here, acid begins the serious breakdown of food, particularly proteins. A cat's stomach acid is strong enough to dissolve bones. The contractions of the stomach mix and grind food with secretions, turning it into a liquid before it passes to the next stage of digestion.

4. The duodenum and its pals: the liver and pancreas

From the stomach, the food slurry passes through another sphincter into the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine. Here, two things happen: the gall bladder releases bile and the pancreas releases several enzymes.

Bile, a chemical produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder, breaks up large fat molecules into smaller ones that can be absorbed in the next stage of the digestive process. The enzymes secreted by the pancreas (which unfortunately does not appear in the illustration above) neutralize the acids in the food slurry before the mixture passes into the intestine, and aid in digestion of sugar, fat and protein. The best known of these is insulin, which regulates the levels of glucose in your cat's body.

Grooming is an important part of the post-meal ritual: it keeps the cat safe by removing traces of food that might be detectable by creatures interested in hunting them. Cat cleaning its fur by Shutterstock

5. The small intestine

The small intestine is the longest part of the cat's digestive system. All nutrients are absorbed there: the small intestine is lined with tiny bodies called villi, which absorb proteins, enzymes, electrolytes and water.

6. The large intestine

In the large intestine, also known as the colon, the last available water and electrolytes are absorbed from the food. Solid feces form and beneficial bacteria produce enzymes that break down material that is more difficult to digest.

7. The rectum and anus

Here, the formed feces collect until they're ready to be ejected into the litter box. The transit time from mouth to anus is about 20 hours.

So, why does your cat go to the bathroom shortly after he eats? When food reaches the stomach and the digestive process begins, an "eject your cargo" signal is sent to the colon. This is called the gastrocolic reflex, and it's why cats (and people) feel the urge to poop after they eat.

There's nothing like a nap after a good meal. Napping cat by Shutterstock
Do you have any other questions about the feline digestive system? Are there digestive disorders or conditions that you'd like me to explore? Ask away in the comments.

Artcle by Jane A Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The 5 Stages of Cat Pregnancy

I'm a big advocate for spay/neuter. It's a crucial part of the equation for reducing the number of cats killed in shelters, and having your cat spayed or neutered improves cat health, reducing the chances of injury and disease. But a lot of us encounter pregnant cats at some point, whether through working at a clinic or shelter, an accidental liaison, or deliberate breeding.

A typical cat's pregnancy lasts about nine weeks. Here are the five stages:

1. Fertilization

Cats reach sexual maturity as early as six months of age, with Oriental breeds generally reaching this stage the earliest. I've even heard of cats going into heat at five months old, which is a good reason to have your girl kitty spayed early. A litter of kittens can have more than one father, depending on how many toms successfully mate with the queen.

2. The early stage

You might be surprised to know that a cat can get morning sickness during the early stage of her pregnancy. For the first two weeks of her pregnancy, your cat may eat less because of the nausea, but by the third week she'll start eating again and begin gaining weight. By the third week, you may be able to feel the lumps of her developing kittens.

I count four kittens in this mama's belly. How many do you see? X-ray of a pregnant cat by Shutterstock

3. The middle stage

Now your cat starts gaining weight in earnest. The kittens are getting bigger, and depending on how many kittens she's carrying, she may start looking like she swallowed a football. If you want to know how many kittens your cat is going to have, your vet may do an X-ray at this time.

4. Pre-labor

This stage starts about a week before your cat gives birth. Her nipples will be very visible at this point, and you may even see milk drops on them. She will start looking for warm and safe places to create a nest for her kittens. You can help her at this time by offering nesting boxes in the places she seems to prefer. Your cat will stop eating about two days before she goes into labor.

5. Labor and delivery

It will be pretty obvious when your cat goes into labor. She'll start licking her genitals and may even make noises of discomfort. If this is her first litter, she may pace and act anxious. She should give birth to her first kitten about an hour after labor starts. After that, the kittens should come every 15 to 20 minutes until the last one has been born.

Generally, mom cat will clean up the kittens: She'll lick them and eat the placentas to give her the extra nutrition she needs. Let her eat those placentas, even if you think it's gross.

There's no need to panic or rush your cat to the vet when she goes into labor. Just keep an eye on things and make sure the delivery is progressing normally. The kittens need to be with their mothers for a minimum of eight weeks in order to be properly weaned, but 12 weeks with mom is better.

Once the babies are weaned, get your queen spayed as soon as possible. She can go into heat pretty quickly once she no longer has to nurse her kittens.

Have you had a pregnant cat or witnessed a birth? What did you think? Share your stories in the comments!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Top 6 Reasons Your Cat Vomits

After I graduated from college, I borrowed one of my family's cats to keep me company in my new apartment. One morning after she had breakfast, she vomited. After supper, she did it again. The next day, the same thing happened. I freaked out. I called a vet clinic, explained in a shaking voice what was happening -- I was sure she was dying! -- and got an appointment the next morning. A quick consultation later, the vet sent me home with a tube of Petromalt, and after the first dose she ejected the biggest hairball I'd ever seen. Actually, most vomiting is caused by fairly innocuous things, and here are the top culprits.

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Sick-looking calico cat by Shutterstock

1. Hairballs

When your cat grooms himself, loose hairs get stuck on the little comblike barbs on his tongue. Because he can't spit that fur out, he swallows it, and if too much of it clumps in his stomach, it doesn't leave a lot of room for food. You can help to prevent hairballs by grooming your cat regularly. Even short-haired cats benefit from regular brushing.

2. Eating too fast

My cat Bella is a puker, and the fact that she vacuums up her food as if she's never going to eat again is the main reason. In order to get her to slow down, I squish her canned food down into the bottom of her bowl so she has to lap it up rather than scarf it down in huge chunks. Another trick is to use a food bowl with a lump in the center, which will force your cat to slow down.

3. New food

If you switch cat food brands, something in the new product could irritate your cat's stomach. Switching from a dry-food-only diet to canned food can also cause vomiting, because canned food is quite rich compared to dry. Try switching back to the old food to see if the vomiting stops.

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Cat eating from a cat grass garden by Shutterstock

4. Eating grass or plants

If you have plants in your house, your cat may get the urge to chew on the leaves. Be sure that the plants in your home are non-toxic to cats. Consider planting a cat grass garden so your feline friend will leave your houseplants alone.

5. Parasites

Heavy worm infestations can cause vomiting. If you see evidence of worms in your cat's vomit or feces, get to your vet and get some deworming medicine. You may pay more up front for the stuff your vet provides, but in the long run you'll save because you won't be buying dose after dose of ineffective over-the-counter remedies.

6. Stomach obstructions

Some cats eat plastic, paper, cat toys, rubber bands, clothes, or whatever they can get their mouths on. If you suspect that your cat has eaten a foreign object, call your vet right away, because this can be a life-threatening situation.

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Sometimes surgery is required to remove foreign objects. Cat in cone collar by Shutterstock

A word of warning: Vomiting can also be caused by poisoning or by very serious diseases. If you suspect your cat has eaten something toxic, call your vet right away for first-aid instructions. If your cat's vomit is bloody or black like coffee grounds, get to the vet immediately. If your cat is vomiting every day, refusing to eat or drink, behaving oddly, or isn't grooming properly, call the vet and get him in for an appointment as soon as possible.
Do you have a cat who frequently vomits? What have you done about it? Please share your experiences in the comments!


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