I ask the same questions of every cat owner: How is his appetite? Has he had any vomiting? You would not believe the number of people that say, “Well, he vomits but it’s just hairballs .” Or “He’s just a very picky eater, but then he’s always had a sensitive stomach.”
The scary thing?
Neither of these situations is normal for cats! These symptoms could be a sign of underlying problems like pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease. And your cat’s sensitive stomach might be much more serious than it sounds.
Choosing the right food for pancreatitis or sensitive cat food is more important than you might think.
Currently, veterinarians believe the best cat food for pancreatitis and sensitive digestion is one that’s moderate in fat and is highly digestible. It also needs to taste good because if your cat won’t eat it, it doesn’t matter how perfect the nutrient profile is. Beware of recommendations for cat foods that are super high in fat as that creates extra work for your cat’s struggling pancreas.
For cats with moderate to severe pancreatitis, I (and many of my colleagues) recommend hydrolyzed protein diets like Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA or Hill’s Prescription Diet z/d cat foods for cats with significant clinical signs like decreased appetite, abdominal pain, weight loss, hepatic lipidosis, vomiting and diarrhea.
If your cat has a milder case of pancreatic inflammation or just has sensitive digestion, you may not need to spend the extra money on a prescription diet. In this article, I’ll show you cat foods in every price range that might work well for your cat. There are even canned food products that have a low-carbohydrate level. Since every cat’s situation is unique, please consult your veterinarian before you decide on which food to buy.
Values listed in this article are based on metabolizable energy (ME) calculations. Veterinary nutritionists advise that ME gives a more accurate estimate of the protein, fat and carbohydrate content of food than guaranteed analysis values. ME calculations account for the water content in a product and use modified Atwater factors to estimate the percentage of calories from each nutrient class. This method is more similar to the way human food labels present nutritional information.
Dry OTC Cat Foods for Mild Pancreatitis & Sensitive Stomachs
For mild cases of cat pancreatitis and sensitive tummies, try a moderate-fat, highly digestible food. I used 40% metabolizable energy (ME) from fat as the cutoff for this group.
Here are a few dry diets that are decent choices for mild pancreatitis or as cat food for sensitive stomachs. They are all widely available and are in different price ranges. (All links are Amazon.com affiliate links.)
|Cat Food for Mild Pancreatitis and Sensitive Stomachs||Protein %||Fat %||Carb. %|
|Purina ONE Sensitive Skin & Stomach Dry Cat Food||34||32||34|
|Nutro Wholesome Essentials Sensitive Cat Chicken, Rice & Peas Recipe Dry Cat Food||31||37||32|
|Solid Gold Winged Tiger with Quail & Pumpkin Grain-Free Sensitive Stomach Dry Cat Food||29||31||40|
I want to talk to you some more about pancreatitis and sensitive stomachs in cats so make sure to read the article below the food recommendations. Now let’s look at my food recommendations for pancreatitis, including canned OTC food and prescription foods. These would work as sensitive stomach cat food, too.
I’ve listed the estimated metabolizable energy from protein, fat and carbohydrate in each one so you can compare them.
Best Cat Foods for Pancreatitis and Sensitive Stomachs
Veterinary nutritionists recommend a moderate-fat diet of 20-40% fat calculated on a metabolizable energy basis. Unfortunately, this information is not available on pet food labels.
I’ve done some calculations here to estimate the metabolizable fat in some popular dry and moist cat foods. Some are available by prescription only and others are non-prescription foods.
I would like to point out that most, if not all of the foods recommended by pet bloggers for cats with pancreatitis are way too high in fat!
Dr. Lisa A. Pierson has wet cat food lists at catinfo.org showing properly calculated protein, fat and carbohydrate content for hundreds of foods. She doesn’t deal with dry food, so ask your vet. I think it’s easiest to use a prescription intestinal diet for cats with pancreatitis.
All numbers in this list are only estimates. Please consult your veterinarian for more specific advice especially if your cat has a severe case of pancreatitis.
Note: All links to food below are affiliate links to Amazon.com.
Prescription Diets for Pancreatitis and Sensitive Stomachs
This list is made up of the good old veterinary standby foods we reach for when we have a patient with pancreatitis, IBD, or a sensitive stomach. They’re not popular with the people who are strictly “holistic,” but these foods save lives so don’t disregard them!
Some of these foods are higher in fat than the 20-30% veterinary nutritionists recommend as a starting point for cats with severe pancreatitis. Your veterinarian will help you choose the right food for your cat depending on how severe his condition is.
|Prescription Cat Food for Moderate Pancreatitis||Protein %||Fat %||Carb. %|
|Hill’s i/d Canned||32||41||27|
|Hill’s z/d Canned||33||25||32|
|Hill’s z/d Dry||29||26||45|
|Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets HA Hydrolyzed Dry||33||24||33|
|Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Moderate Calorie Canned||46||28||26|
|Royal Canin Hydrolyzed Protein Dry||22||43||35|
Non-Prescription Canned Cat Foods for Pancreatitis
All of these foods could be considered for a cat with pancreatitis. They’re all canned foods with a moderate-fat level.
|Non-Prescription Lower Carb. Moderate Fat Canned Cat Food||Protein %||Fat %||Carb. %|
|AvoDerm Grain Free Tuna & Crab Entree in Gravy Canned||59||29||12|
|Lotus Just Juicy Venison Canned||57||32||10|
|Meow Mix Classic Pate with Real Tuna Moist||51||36||13|
|Natural Balance Delectable Delights Purrrfect Paella Stew||66||24||10|
|Purina Pro Plan True Nature High Protein, Natural Adult Wet Cat Food||66||32||2|
|Purina Pro Plan Focus Adult Weight Management Ground Turkey & Rice Canned||58||24||18|
|Royal Canin Intense Beauty Thin Slices in Gravy||50||36||14|
Homemade Cat Food for Pancreatitis
If you’re interested in cooking for your cat, hooray! I cook some of my pets’ food and I think it’s benefited them in many ways.
Please, please, please follow a recipe created by a veterinary nutritionist. It’s not OK for a cat’s diet to consist of meat and a few other random ingredients as recommended by so many people on the internet. It’s like feeding a 3-year-old child nothing but chicken fingers and carrots and expecting them to grow normally. Eventually, bad things will happen!
Team up with your vet and order a simple recipe for cats with pancreatitis from BalanceIt.com. They have options for different plant and animal protein sources and you can even get a low-carb recipe if that’s important to you.
Here’s the best part:
You’ll be feeding your cat a balanced diet specifically formulated to support your cat’s stomach, pancreas and digestive health. You won’t have to worry about nutrient deficiencies that will cause new problems a year or two down the road.
Your cat and her pancreas will both thank you!
Vomiting Regularly Is NOT Normal for Cats
Since the time that people first started bringing cats indoors for companionship, we’ve noticed some cats throw up a lot. The problem became so rampant that people started making jokes about cats “coughing up a hairball.”
It’s sad that we’ve all decided to accept the fact that cats throw up on a regular basis. In reality, this is not the behavior of a healthy cat.
Sure, many cats will vomit a few times a year without serious underlying problems. But vomiting once a week or more?
That’s not normal!
Is It Normal for Cats to Throw Up Hairballs?
When I say vomiting regularly is not normal for cats, that includes throwing up hairballs.
A cat with a healthy digestive tract and a good diet should be able to pass a pretty large amount of fur through their GI tract without trouble.
When the normal tissue of the intestines becomes thickened from inflammation, normal intestinal motility becomes impaired. That means hair collects in one spot and dries out, forming a mat that is difficult to push along.
All the food behind that big, dry mat of hair backs up, causing an upset stomach and vomiting. When the small intestine gets angry enough, it will push the hairball back up to the mouth to be vomited, too.
Is It Pancreatitis or Just a Sensitive Stomach?
Saying your cat has a “sensitive stomach” is saying a lot.
I see cats all the time who have a finicky appetite, vomiting, gas, constipation, diarrhea, mucus in the stool or even blood in the stool.
That’s more than just being a little sensitive. That’s a sign of an underlying problem in your cat’s GI tract.
How can you tell cat pancreatitis from a sensitive stomach?
Only with diagnostic testing, really. And even then, definitively diagnosing pancreatitis can be a challenge for vets.
Chronic pancreatitis is surprisingly common in cats (unlike dogs who get acute pancreatitis). They often have very vague symptoms like mild lethargy and a finicky appetite. Meanwhile, their pancreatic tissue is practically eating itself alive!
IBD Is a Complicating Factor
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) occurs when inflammatory cells infiltrate the tissues of a cat’s small and large intestine. We don’t know the root cause of IBD but some vets speculate that it happens because of a defect in the lining of the intestine allowing food and bacteria to penetrate into the tissues.
IBD might increase the risk of pancreatitis in affected cats. When a cat with IBD vomits, intestinal contents can push backward where they’re not supposed to go, including through the pancreatic duct into the pancreas. This can activate pancreatic enzymes while they’re still in the pancreas, causing inflammation of the tissue there.
Food recommendations for cats with IBD are similar to those made for pancreatitis. Hydrolyzed protein diets are the first choice of many vets and work well for the majority of cats.
The Best Cat Food for Pancreatitis and Sensitive Stomach?
Here’s the disappointing truth:
Nobody knows the best food for cats with pancreatitis or a sensitive stomach.
This is partly because every cat is different. The other part is that we don’t have many studies that quantify which foods cause problems for cats or which ones help them when they have gastrointestinal problems.
I get really worried when people go searching the interwebs to find the best cat food for their cat that has a potentially very serious disease like pancreatitis.
They find dozens of articles written by laypeople with good intentions but I’m not sure how these writers choose their recommended cat foods. They seem to be convinced that affected cats need to avoid certain “inflammatory ingredients” and eat large amounts of animal protein and fat. Since they’re not research scientists or vets themselves and also don’t quote veterinary nutritionists, I can only assume they’re guessing.
I’m all for cat owners sharing their experiences with other cat owners. But when writers with no veterinary credentials make therapeutic diet recommendations for cats with a very serious disease it’s very concerning!
Veterinarians and research scientists don’t know if there is one best cat food for pancreatitis or sensitive stomachs, let alone which particular food you should choose.
Hydrolyzed Protein Diets: Frankenfood That Saves Cats
The best advice we have for feeding cats with pancreatitis is based on clinical experience, not scientific evidence.
Here’s the thing:
Many cats with pancreatitis also have gastrointestinal disease, namely IBD. That’s why vets often reach for food proven beneficial for cats with IBD (4).
Veterinarians’ food of choice for cats with IBD is often a hydrolyzed protein diet. These foods have been processed to change the plant or animal protein sources so the body doesn’t mistake them for foreign invaders.
Another benefit of hydrolyzed diets for cats with pancreatitis is that they are typically more digestible than the original protein source they’re made from. They are also generally lower in fiber than typical cat food (7).
Are hydrolyzed cat foods natural or holistic?
But if your cat has a serious problem like pancreatitis or IBD, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room to play around with completely unproven holistic treatments.
I advise my clients to get the cat stabilized first and later they can cautiously experiment with more natural interventions.
Novel Protein Cat Food
Novel protein source diets are made with a protein your cat has never been exposed to before.
If your cat has developed a food intolerance or allergy to a protein source, the situation should improve with something her body has never “seen.”
Novel protein diets for cats use rabbit, venison, and sometimes more exotic proteins like kangaroo.
The prescription versions of these diets (like those from Purina and Royal Canin) are tightly controlled so that no trace amounts of chicken, fish, beef, etc. are contained in the food.
I know everyone wants to save money and have the convenience of buying cat food from the pet store, but don’t make this mistake!
Over-the-counter limited ingredient diets that claim to be hypoallergenic are known to have contamination problems (6).
Some cats with IBD and pancreatitis respond favorably to a new food using novel protein sources and limited ingredients.
And some cat lovers like this option better than Frankenfood hydrolyzed protein diets as they seem somewhat more natural.
Do Low Carbohydrate Foods Help?
Another unknown aspect of food for cats with pancreatitis and stomach sensitivity is the ideal macronutrient ratio. We have some evidence that cats with diabetes do better with a lower carbohydrate level (2). So, yes, cats that have concurrent diabetes and pancreatitis may do better with food containing 10% or less total carbohydrate.
Internet gurus tout low-carbohydrate food for cats. While it seems to make logical sense because the natural diet of cats is low in carbs, we don’t have the research to back up the claim that all cats benefit from low-carb diets.
What I’ve seen is that some cats do seem healthier eating a lower-carb diet. But I’ve also seen thousands of cats who live their entire life on a comparatively high-carb diet without apparent problems.
The main point I want to make is you shouldn’t refuse the diet your vet recommends just because it’s not low-carb. There could be other reasons it would be very helpful to your cat.
It’s true, most hydrolyzed protein diets are not low-carb. But they are a Godsend for many cats with IBD. There is a lot of research to support the use of these therapeutic diets for certain diseases.
I like natural and holistic, but I like scientific proof, too. Especially when I’m trying to help a very sick kitty survive!
How Much Fat Should Pancreatitis Cats Eat?
The National Research Council advises us that cat foods should have a fat content of about 9% of dry matter, at a minimum (9). They also state that there are no known adverse effects from healthy cats eating a much higher fat content, like more than 50% of the diet.
Remember, three main nutrients make up any cat diet: protein, fat and carbohydrate. If you take away carbohydrates, the percentage of fat and/or protein goes up.
Since fat is a LOT cheaper than protein, most low-carb cat foods are pretty darn high in fat. Think about it. A wild cat is eating small rodents and birds that are very lean. It seems logical to think that cats are not built to eat a super high-fat diet. And the pancreas will have extra work trying to break down all that fat.
The point here is that although healthy cats can survive on a very high-fat diet, it’s not ideal for cats with pancreatitis
Veterinary nutritionists recommend a moderate-fat diet for cats with chronic pancreatitis. In fact, some recommend you feed a diet that is lower in fat than the one the cat was eating when it developed pancreatitis.
Veterinary nutritionists recommend a diet with 20-30% metabolizable energy from fat for cats with moderate to severe pancreatitis.
Since this is a bit tricky to calculate, I’ll give some examples here. You should consult your veterinarian before you make a food choice.
It’s easier to find a moderate protein, moderate fat diet that may have a bit more carbohydrate than holistic-minded enthusiasts recommend.
Which Is Better for Sensitive Stomachs–Canned or Dry Food?
We don’t have definitive evidence on this topic, either. However, some vets feel that wet cat food wins when it comes to cats with pancreatitis.
The reason may surprise you.
Making dry cat food is kind of like making cookies. You can’t very easily make cookies from just butter and eggs. You have to add something like flour to give them shape.
Dry cat food has to contain some sort of carbohydrate source to allow it to hold the kibble shape. Carbohydrates come with more fiber which can make cat food harder to digest.
Canned cat food products don’t require the starches needed to make kibble so they have less starch/fiber and are more digestible. If you choose carefully, you can find wet food with less fiber and higher digestibility for your cat with pancreatitis or other digestive troubles.
You have to watch out for very high-fat levels in wet food. Especially in premium and boutique foods that have no carbohydrate added. See my advice later in the article and check out the list of canned cat foods on catinfo.org to find a relatively low-fat diet so you don’t overwhelm your cat’s pancreas.
As great as we humans think canned cat food is, I find many cats have a strong preference for dry cat food. So don’t get too upset if your cat wants crunchies!
Consider offering canned and dry food but perhaps use a hydrolyzed protein dry cat food so it is more digestible. In fact, for underweight cats, dry food is better for getting more calories in fewer bites.
Cat Treats for Pancreatitis
Treats are a big part of bonding with your cat and are a highlight of the day for most kitties. Cats with pancreatitis and/or sensitive stomachs can still enjoy treats but need to avoid hard-to-digest ones.
Look for the same thing in treats that you look for in the regular diet: moderate protein, moderate fat and low fiber.
One of the most popular cat treats I know of would be perfect for a cat with digestive problems: bonito flakes. Bonito is a type of fish and when it’s dehydrated and flaked, it’s practically kitty crack! Even better is that they are mostly protein, so you have no concerns about giving your cat too much fat or fiber to irritate her pancreas.
If your cat’s not a fan of fish, try dehydrated chicken livers. Just go easy with these. Although they’re not high in fat, they are high in vitamin A. More than a treat or two per day could be too much vitamin A for a cat. Try cutting the dried liver pieces into tiny bits with a sharp knife. Cats love chasing the pieces as you toss them a treat.
One more choice for cats with sensitive stomachs or pancreatitis is Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Feline Cat Treats. The metabolizable fat level is moderate at 28%. These would be a good choice for a cat who insists on a crunchy treat!
What Kind of Food Should Cats With Digestive Issues Avoid?
Cats suffering from pancreatitis seem to do best when eating moderate fat, highly digestible diets.
Avoid cat foods with a huge amount of fat (no more than 40% of the metabolizable energy). Internet articles with good intentions frequently recommend foods with 60%+ fat. That’s more than double the recommended level for a cat with pancreatitis!
Lower quality (i.e. cheap) foods are often less digestible than premium cat foods. If you’re buying whatever is on sale at the grocery store, you can probably do better by putting a little more thought into your choice and loosening your pursestrings a bit.
A high-quality diet is a good investment because it helps your cat stay healthy and away from the vet clinic seeking expensive treatment for illness.
Stay Away: Cat Foods Too High in Fat For Pancreatitis
All the foods in this list are recommended on other non-veterinary websites but all are too high in fat to be a good diet for cats with pancreatitis. They look good at first glance because their ingredients are mostly meat, but since fat is cheaper than animal protein, they end up being really high in fat.
These foods may be fine for healthy cats, but they’re too high in fat for a cat with pancreatitis. For that reason, I have not provided links to these foods. Choose one from above instead!
|Non-Prescription Cat Foods With Too Much Fat for Pancreatitis||Protein %||Fat %||Carb. %|
|Instinct Original Duck Canned||35||65||0|
|Instinct Raw Boost Grain-Free Recipe with Chicken Dry||35||46||19|
|Nulo Freestyle Salmon & Mackerel Recipe Grain-Free Canned||42||51||7|
|Stella & Chewy’s Absolutely Rabbit Dinner Morsels Freeze-Dried Raw||34||56||10|
|ZiwiPeak Lamb Canned||37||57||6|
- Bazelle, J., & Watson, P. (2014). Pancreatitis in cats: is it acute, is it chronic, is it significant? Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 16(5), 395–406.
- Bennett, N., Greco, D. S., Peterson, M. E., Kirk, C., Mathes, M., & Fettman, M. J. (2006). Comparison of a low carbohydrate–low fiber diet and a moderate carbohydrate–high fiber diet in the management of feline diabetes mellitus. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 8(2), 73-84.
- De Cock, H. E., Forman, M. A., Farver, T. B., & Marks, S. L. (2007). Prevalence and histopathologic characteristics of pancreatitis in cats. Veterinary pathology, 44(1), 39-49.
- Mandigers, P. J., Biourge, V., & German, A. J. (2010). Efficacy of a commercial hydrolysate diet in eight cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease or adverse reaction to food. Tijdschr Diergeneeskd, 135(18), 668-72.
- Marks, S., BVSc, PhD, DACVIM. (2011). Feline Triaditis – Current Concepts. In Feline Medicine Symposium. Davis, CA: Feline Medicine Symposium.
- Ricci, R., Granato, A., Vascellari, M., Boscarato, M., Palagiano, C., Andrighetto, I., … & Mutinelli, F. (2013). Identification of undeclared sources of animal origin in canine dry foods used in dietary elimination trials. Journal of animal physiology and animal nutrition, 97, 32-38.
- Rudinsky, A. J., Rowe, J. C., & Parker, V. J. (2018). Nutritional management of chronic enteropathies in dogs and cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 253(5), 570-578.
- Simpson, K. W., BVM & S, PhD, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA. (2017). Feline Pancreatitis: Diagnosis & Management. In Pacific Veterinary Conference. Long Beach, CA: Pacific Veterinary Conference.
- Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs. (2006). Washington, DC: National Research Council.
- Zoran, D. L., DVM, PhD, DACVIM. (2018). The Feline Pancreas: Chronic Pancreatitis and Insufficiency in Cats. In Southwest Veterinary Symposium. San Antonio, TX: Southwest Veterinary Symposium.
Last update on 2021-07-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API