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How Long Does It Take a Cat to Digest Food?

When you’re trying to determine how often to feed your cat, you can find conflicting information. Some cat owners say that feeding cats twice a day is best. Others keep the bowl filled at all times and let their cats graze whenever they want.

A reasonable feeding plan is easy to set up once you know how long it takes a cat to digest their food. Knowing when they’re hungry and in need of another meal can help you keep them satisfied and avoid unnecessary weight gain.

What’s best for one cat won’t be the best for all cats, however. Every cat has different feeding needs depending on their age, weight, activity level, and any health issues that they may have. Your vet can help you determine the proper amount and frequency to feed your cat. However, if you’re concerned that your cat may not be on the right feeding schedule, read on to learn more about how long it takes for cats to digest food and what happens during the process.

Complete digestion in cats takes between 10 and 20 hours. Keep reading to learn more:

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How Long Does Digestion Take in Cats?

grey cat licking lips after eating cat food from bowl inside on floor
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It takes between 10 and 20 hours for food to move entirely through the digestive tract of a healthy cat. The entire digestive process can take place during this time, but a cat’s stomach is empty after 8–10 hours. This is when they will start to feel hungry again after eating a meal. At least two meals per day are recommended because of this. One meal usually isn’t enough to keep cats feeling full for 24 hours.

The Digestive System of a Cat

A cat’s digestive system does four things:

  • Digests food
  • Absorbs nutrients
  • Moves the food through the digestive tract
  • Eliminates feces
The parts of the body involved in the digestion process, in order, are:
  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Stomach
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Intestines
  • Rectum and anus

The Digestive Process

Digestion starts in your cat’s mouth. Cats don’t chew the way that humans do because their jaws only move up and down. Ours can also move side to side. We can chew our food thoroughly, while cats tend to swallow pieces of their food in larger chunks. The cat’s tongue will mix the food with saliva as they chew, beginning the digestive process. Enzymes in the saliva start to chemically break down the food before it’s swallowed.

Once swallowed, muscles in the esophagus work to move the food into the stomach for further digestion. Cats have simple stomachs, meaning they consist of only one compartment. After food settles into the stomach, acids continue to break it down further.

When the food has turned into a liquid in the stomach, it passes into the small intestine. The gall bladder releases bile. Bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder. It’s responsible for breaking up large fat molecules for easier digestion. The pancreas also releases enzymes that neutralize acids and help in the breakdown of sugar, fat, and protein. This includes insulin, which regulates your cat’s blood sugar.

The longest part of the cat’s digestive system is the small intestine. This is where most nutrients get absorbed. The process moves along from the small intestine to the colon, or large intestine. The last remaining nutrients are absorbed here, and feces are formed. Finally, feces continue to collect until they’re ready to be passed.

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Keeping Your Cat’s Digestive System Healthy

grey cat eating meat
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Cats need high-protein diets because they are obligate carnivores. This means they require meat from animal protein in their diet. Some animals can get essential fatty acids and nutrients from plants. Cats are unable to do this. Instead, they get their necessary vitamins and minerals from protein.

In the wild, a cat’s diet is mainly made up of 55% protein and 45% fat. They get this from their prey. Only 1%–2% of their diet is made up of carbohydrates. Cats cannot produce certain amino acids in their bodies and have to get them from their food. Cats are made to digest large amounts of protein, so a high-protein diet is best for them and will keep their digestive system working properly. Anything outside of this diet could be difficult for cats to digest.

If your cat seems to be having any digestive struggles, speak to your vet about a diet change or supplements that they may need.

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Digestive Issues in Cats

Now that you know how long it takes cats to poop after they eat and how the digestion process works, you will know when there’s a problem with your cat.

Constipation

Cats should not go longer than 36 hours without pooping if they are eating regularly.

If your cat doesn’t poop after 48 hours, they could be constipated and should see a vet right away. Constipation can happen for many reasons, including:

  • Pain in the body
  • Anxiety
  • Strict dry food diet without sufficient moisture
  • Not enough fiber
  • Kidney issues
  • Excessive hairballs
  • Allergies
  • Chronic diseases
  • Colon issues

It’s best to get this problem checked out right away. While many constipation issues are mild and can be easily treated, other times, the issue can quickly become an emergency. Whenever your cat isn’t pooping normally, contact your vet.

Intestinal Blockage

Cat digestion can be interrupted by an intestinal blockage. This occurs when your cat eats something that can’t be digested, like small objects, ribbons, or plastic. This is an emergency situation. Symptoms of a blockage include:

  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Refusing to eat

If your cat didn’t eat a foreign object but still has an intestinal blockage, other causes can be tumors, hernias, or intestinal parasites. Surgery is likely necessary to treat a blockage, so seeking treatment right away is important.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms mimic those of other conditions. IBD can only be diagnosed with a biopsy. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and lack of appetite.

IBD can have several causes, including:
  • Immune dysfunction
  • Food allergies
  • Bacterial overgrowth
  • Stress
  • Genetics
  • Parasites

Treatment includes medication and a possible diet change. Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the best course of treatment.

Sick cat medicines
Image Credit: one photo, Shutterstock

Food Allergies

Sometimes, food allergies are noticed because cats will suddenly develop skin lesions with near-constant itchiness. Other times, symptoms only occur in the digestive tract. Vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and gassiness are symptoms of digestive issues that may be caused by an allergy to food or your cat’s intolerance of something in their diet.

The best way to determine the culprit is to put your cat on a vet-recommended diet for a few weeks. This will likely be a bland diet of water and prescription food. Once the symptoms clear up, reintroduce your cat’s former diet until the symptoms reappear and you can determine the cause. You’ll then know which foods or ingredients to avoid in the future.

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Final Thoughts

Complete digestion in cats takes between 10 and 20 hours. Your cat’s stomach is empty 8–10 hours after eating a meal, and the rest of the digestion takes place in the intestines until your cat is ready to poop.

Certain illnesses can cause digestive problems in your cat, so be sure to watch for any changes in their bathroom habits. If you notice that your cat hasn’t pooped in 48 hours, it’s time to consult your vet for advice. They could be constipated or suffering from a health condition.

Feeding your cat a proper diet will keep their digestive tract healthy and working properly.

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Featured Image Credit: IMG Stock Studio, Shutterstock

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