How Long Does It Take for a Cat to Digest its Food?

We have a cat that is at least 17 years old and spends most of his time curled up out of the way sleeping.  It seems like when he isn’t sleeping, he is complaining and yowling wanting something to eat.  The constant quest for food led me to the question.  How long does it take for a cat to digest its food?

The journey your cat’s food takes through the digestive system can take 10 to 24 hours.  The time can vary depending on the:

  • Age of the cate
  • Type of food
  • Health of the cat. 

Though cats are considerably smaller than humans, their digestive tract takes almost twice as long to process food.

A cat’s digestive system is like humans in structure but differs radically in many other aspects.  We humans can eat almost anything and extract nutrition.  Cat’s, on the other hand, can process significantly fewer types of food.  Their digestive tracts are also much more susceptible to certain kinds of problems about which we, as cat owners, should be aware.

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From Beginning to End – The Digestive Journey in a Cat

You probably already know all the parts of a cat’s digestive system.

  • The mouth including the tongue and teeth
  • The esophagus
  • The stomach
  • The small intestine
  • The Large intestine
  • The rectum

Each of these parts of your cat’s digestive tract plays a vital role as food travels through the system.  Understanding how each of these organs works, what it does, and how it fits into the scheme of keeping your cat healthy is part of responsible cat ownership.

Where it all Begins, The Mouth

If you have been around cats much, you know that their mouths are full of sharp pointy teeth.  Cats don’t have grinding teeth.  A lack of grinding teeth means that cats swallow their food in larger chunks. A cat’s jaw is a simple hinge, unlike a human whose jaw can move in almost any direction.

When the food is shredded into chunks and mixed with saliva, the cat’s tongue moves it back to the esophagus.

Down the Hatch – the Short trip to the Stomach

Just like a human, the cats’ esophagus is the conduit from the mouth to the stomach.  The esophagus is a semi-rigid tube lined with muscles that can contract in sequence.  This sequential contraction pushes food down the esophagus to the stomach.

Cats love to play with objects that attract their attention.  Sometimes cats will inadvertently swallow one of these objects, which can cause obstructions in the esophagus if you notice your cat having trouble swallowing or exhibiting gagging behaviors, it’s time for a quick visit to the vest.

The Stomach – Where it all Really Begins

Ever wonder what happens to all those tiny sharp bones in fish and birds that cats are prone to eating?  Wonder no more.  The acid in a cat’s stomach is strong enough to dissolve those bones.  As the digestive process begins in the cat’s stomach, the muscles that line the stomach churn and grind the food until it becomes a liquid. 

After the stomach has done its job, the liquid passes to the top of the small intestine.  This part of the digestive tract is called the duodenum and plays a significant role in the digestive process.

The Triple Threat – The Liver, Pancreas and Gall Bladder

Did you know the liver, pancreas, and gall bladder are part of the digestive tract?  Working together, these three organs release several substances into the upper part of the small intestine.  These enzymes and other secretions play many roles.

  • They neutralize the acid from the stomach
  • Enzymes begin to break down sugars, fats, and proteins
  • They prepare the liquid for the bacteria in the intestines, where the nutrients enter the body

Getting the Real Work Done – the Small Intestine

The small intestine is the longest organ in the digestive system.  This muscular tube is lined with small structures that house the bacteria that are integral to the process.  The bacteria living in the small intestine further breakdown the nutrients into forms absorbable through the walls of the intestine.

Finishing the Process in the Large Intestine

The large intestine, which is also known as the colon, continues the absorption process removing the last of the water and other nutrients.  Toward the end of the colon, the solid feces begin to form.  Special bacteria reside in the large intestine that aid in breaking down the more difficult materials to digest.

The Final Product – Cat Waste

That final cat product that we have the privilege to clean from the litter box is the result of this digestive process.  In all, the entire process takes from 10 to 24 hours.   The fully formed feces are stored in the rectum and ejected through the anus.  Often, this happens immediately after a cat eats. 

If Cat Digestion Takes 10 Hours, Why Does my Cat Run to the Litter Box after He Eats?

This rapid move from the food bowl to the litter box is a natural response.  This trigger, called the gastrocolic reflex, is a signal sent to the digestive tract when food enters the cat’s stomach.  You can think of it as a “make room” order telling the rectum and anus to get rid of what they are holding to make room for new material.

By the way, humans have the same reflex, which can explain a lot of things around the dinner table.

Significant Differences in Similar Systems

As similar as our digestive system is to our cats, there are significant differences. 

  • Cats can’t digest plant material – No vegan diet for your cat.  A cat’s digestive system doesn’t produce the enzymes or have the bacteria cultures to process plant material to extract the nutrients.  If you see your cat eating grass, it is a good sign that they are suffering some digestive ailment and they are trying to clean out the system.
  • Slower is better for a cat – Cats are smaller, and their digestive tracts are shorter than humans.  The food takes longer to travel through the digestive tract of your cat to have more time to extract the nutrients.
  • A tongue of many Uses – A cat tongue is much different than humans. You probably noticed the difference when you get cat kisses.  Cat tongues are rough.  This rough texture helps the cat break apart and move food around in its mouth.  A cat also uses this rough tongue for grooming.

Hairballs.  Are they a Problem?

Cats groom themselves regularly.  This grooming, done with the tongue, brings a lot of cat hair into the digestive tract of your cat. Usually, this hair passes through the digestive system with no problems. Most cats will eject a hairball every week or so as the hair builds up in the esophagus. 

Hairballs, while natural to cats, can pose some health issues for your cat.

  • Long-haired cats may suffer from rapid hair build-up and eject hairballs more frequently.  Helping your cat with grooming by brushing can alleviate some of the hair build up in the digestive tract.
  • Hairballs can cause constipation.  Constipation can cause your cat to become lethargic and to stop eating.  Watch your cat, and if you notice a decrease in trips to the litter box, consult with your veterinarian.
  • Hairballs can cause obstructions in the esophagus or the intestines.   A digestive obstruction is a serious health risk. If you notice your cat in distress, you should be on your way to the vet.

The End of the Line

When you see your cat headed to the litter box, you now understand the trip started 10 to 24 hours ago when that bowl of cat chow hit the floor, and kitty stepped up to the dinner table.  Paying attention to your cat’s schedules and habits are essential to making sure that your cat pal is healthy and happy.