Reflux in Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

reflux in cats

What is reflux?

Also known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), reflux is a condition in which gastric juices flow back from the stomach and into the esophagus. Normally the sphincter (a muscular valve at the top of the stomach) closes, preventing acid  and food “refluxing” back up. This results in  pain and inflammation (known as esophagitis). Over time this can cause a build-up of scar tissue, leading to stricture, which is a narrowing or tightening of the esophagus.

Reflux can occur in cats of all ages, although it is seen more commonly in younger cats,  there is no sex predisposition.

What causes reflux in cats?

There are several causes of reflux in cats, some of which include:

  • Cats who have undergone anesthesia are at greater risk, particularly cats who are improperly positioned.
  • Not fasting a cat prior to anesthesia.
  • Hiatal hernia a condition which is caused by a tear in the diaphragm allowing the stomach into the thorax.
  • Chronic vomiting.
  • Foreign body (such as a hairball) in the esophagus.
  • Cancer of the esophagus.
  • Kidney disease. The kidneys are responsible for the excretion of gastrin, a gastrointestinal hormone that stimulates the production of stomach acid to digest food. As the kidneys begin to fail, gastrin may remain in the stomach, which in turn stimulates excess amounts of stomach acid.

What are the symptoms of reflux in cats?

How is reflux diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a history from you, including symptoms you may have noticed such as frequent vomiting. Diagnosis is made via endoscopy, in which a thin tube with a light and camera at the end are inserted for evaluation of the esophagus and digestive tract. Endoscopy is performed under sedation.

Other tests your veterinarian may wish to perform include:

  • Complete blood count.
  • Urinalysis.
  • Ultrasound.

The above tests usually don’t show anything out of the ordinary although ultrasound may find a foreign body or cancer.

How is reflux treated in cats?

Addressing the underlying cause, such as remove foreign objects or repair of a hernia.

Protecting the esophagus from further damage with the use of antacid medication to inhibit the production of stomach acid.

Low protein, low-fat diets may be prescribed. Feeding smaller meals more frequently may also be recommended.

If the esophagus is ulcerated, a medication known as Carafate may be prescribed to coat the lining.

In severe cases, where the esophagus has been severely damaged, a stomach tube may be required. This is only a short term (months, not years) solution, though.