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Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Digestive System in Cats

By Dana G. Allen, DVM, MSc, DACVIM, Department of Clinical Studies, Ontario Veterinary College
Sharon Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Manager, Pharmacovigilance Regulatory Affairs, Veterinary Medicine Research and Development, Pfizer Inc.
Ben H. Colmery, DVM, DAVDC,
James G. Fox, DVM, MS, DACLAM, Professor and Director, Division of Comparative Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Carlton L. Gyles, DVM, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Pathobiology, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph
Walter Ingwersen, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, Specialist, Companion Animals, Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd, Vetmedica
Lisa E. Moore, DVM, DACVIM,
Sofie Muylle, DVM, PhD, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Morphology, Ghent University
Sharon Patton, MS, PhD, Professor of Parasitology, Department of Biomedical and Diagnostic Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Tennessee
Andrew S. Peregrine, BVMS, PhD, DVM, DEVPC, DACVM, Associate Professor, Department of Pathobiology, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Stanley I. Rubin, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Clinical Professor, Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
H. Carolien Rutgers, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, DSAM, MRCVS, Senior Lecturer, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Jörg M. Steiner, DrMedVet, PhD, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, AGAF, Associate Professor and Director, Gastrointestinal Laboratory, Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A & M University
Thomas W. Swerczek, DVM, PhD, Professor, Department of Veterinary Science, University of Kentucky

Also see professional content regarding congenital and inherited disorders of the disgestive system.

Congenital abnormalities are conditions that an animal is born with; they are often referred to as “birth defects.” Some of these conditions are inherited and tend to occur within particular families or breeds, while others are caused by chemicals or injury during pregnancy. For still others, the cause is unknown. Some of the most common congenital abnormalities of the digestive system in cats are described below.


A cleft palate or cleft lip (harelip) is caused by a defect in the formation of the jaw and face during embryonic development. It leads to a gap or cleft in the center of the lip, roof of the mouth (hard palate), or both. Often these gaps leave an opening between the roof of the mouth and the nasal cavity allowing food and liquids to pass into the breathing passages. These conditions have a wide range in severity. Usually the upper lip and palate are affected. Clefts in the lower lip are rare. The incidence of cleft lip is higher in Siamese cats than in other breeds.

Cleft palate or lip will usually be noticed shortly after birth when the kitten might have problems nursing. For example, milk might be seen dripping from the nostrils or the kitten might have difficulty suckling and swallowing. The veterinarian can readily identify the problem by examining the kitten’s mouth. Affected kittens require intensive nursing care, including hand or tube feeding and possibly antibiotics to treat respiratory infections. Surgical correction is effective only in minor cases, and is usually done when kittens are 6 to 8 weeks old to minimize further complications. A variety of surgical techniques are used, and the success rate in cats is improving. The decision to perform surgery should be made carefully, and the affected animal should be spayed or neutered to prevent passing the defect on to its offspring.

Brachygnathia occurs when the lower jaw is shorter than the upper jaw. It can be a minor problem or a serious defect depending on the degree of abnormality. Mild cases may cause no problems. More severe cases can cause damage to the hard palate (roof of the mouth) or restriction of normal jaw growth. The lower canine teeth are often removed or shortened to prevent this damage.

Prognathia occurs when the lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw. This characteristic is normal in some breeds (for example, Persian cats) and does not usually require treatment.


In most animals, having too few teeth is rare. In cats, extra teeth sometimes occur and may lead to crowding and poor alignment of the teeth. Extra teeth that cause crowding should be extracted by a veterinarian as soon as they are discovered to prevent further dental problems.

Delayed loss of deciduous (baby) teeth is uncommon in cats. However, because teeth that do not fall out get in the way of the permanent teeth, any retained deciduous teeth should be removed by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Abnormal development of tooth enamel (the hard outer surface of the tooth) can be caused by fever, trauma, malnutrition, poisoning, or infections. The damage to the enamel depends on the severity and duration of the cause and can range from pitting to the absence of enamel with incomplete tooth development. Affected teeth are prone to plaque and tartar accumulation, which lead to tooth decay. Resin restoration is sometimes used to cover defects, although careful dental hygiene and home care is critical in reducing the incidence of complications. Discoloration of the enamel may also occur. Giving tetracycline antibiotics to pregnant females or to kittens less than 6 months old may result in permanent brownish-yellow stains on the teeth.


The muscular tube that leads from the back of the mouth to the stomach is known as the esophagus. Some congenital abnormalities of the esophagus seen in cats include megaesophagus, vascular ring anomalies, and crichopharyngeal achalasia (see Table: Congenital Esophageal Disorders of Cats). Signs of defects in the esophagus generally include regurgitation and problems with swallowing. These signs are especially noticeable when your cat starts to eat solid food. Surgical correction of some esophageal abnormalities (for example, vascular ring anomalies, in which abnormal blood vessels surround and restrict the esophagus) is effective if done early. If not, the esophagus can become permanently damaged by the stretching caused by trapped food.

Congenital Esophageal Disorders of Cats



Breeds Most Often Affected

Congenital megaesophagus

Abnormal nerve development in esophagus; sometimes part of more widespread nerve problems


Vascular ring entrapment

Physical constriction of the esophagus by blood vessels

No breed tendencies reported

Cricopharyngeal achalasia

Failure of the cricopharyngeal muscle (in the throat) to relax during swallowing

Rare; no breed tendencies reported

Small pouches in the lining of the esophagus, called esophageal diverticula, will sometimes form. Clinical signs depend on severity and are seen in only 10 to 15% of cases. When they do occur, they may cause accumulation of food or become inflamed. In rare cases they rupture. Treatment (if necessary) is by surgical removal of the pouch.


A hernia is the protrusion of a portion of an organ or tissue through an abnormal opening. One common congenital type involves an abnormal opening in the wall of the diaphragm (the sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen) or abdomen. The defect may allow abdominal organs to pass into the chest or bulge beneath the skin. Hernias may be congenital (present at birth) or result from injury. Signs of a hernia vary from none to severe and depend on the amount of herniated tissue and its effect on the organ involved. Hiatal hernias involve extension of part of the stomach through the diaphragm. These hernias may be “sliding” and result in signs (such as loss of appetite, drooling, or vomiting) that come and go. Hernias are diagnosed using x-rays; contrast studies (x‑rays that include special dyes to outline organs) are often needed. Endoscopy may be used to diagnose sliding hiatal hernias. In many cases, correction of a hernia involving the diaphragm requires surgery. However, the use of antacid preparations and dietary modification may control signs of a hiatal hernia, if they are mild.

A hiatal hernia involves the extension of part of the stomach through the diaphragm.

Hernias involving the abdominal wall include umbilical, inguinal, or scrotal, depending on their location (see Table: Types of Hernias). Diagnosis of umbilical hernias is usually simple, especially if the veterinarian is able to push the hernia back through the abdominal wall (called “reducing the hernia”). These hernias are corrected by surgery. Small hernias are often corrected at the same time that the cat is spayed or neutered. The tendency to develop hernias may be inherited.


Besides hiatal hernia (see Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Digestive System in Cats : Hernias), another abnormality involving the stomach is -pyloric stenosis. It is likely that pyloric stenosis is inherited. This condition results from muscular thickening of the pyloric sphincter (the “exit” of the stomach). The thickening of this opening slows or blocks the flow of digested food from the stomach to the small intestine. Siamese cats are at higher risk of this condition. Because the flow of food out of the stomach is restricted, cats with this condition will often vomit food for several hours after a meal. Treatment is through dietary modification and medication. In more severe cases, surgery may help.

Small and Large Intestine

Malabsorption occurs when nutrients are not properly absorbed into the bloodstream. These conditions often cause persistent digestive system problems, including vomiting, weight loss, diarrhea, or a combination of these signs. There are many potential causes of malabsorption. Some are inherited; some are acquired (for example, as a result of a viral infection). Most are associated with inflammation of the intestines called inflammatory bowel disease. Malabsorption is often treated with a combination of dietary changes and medication; the exact treatment will depend on the condition being treated. To provide the best life for a cat with these conditions, follow your veterinarian’s medication, diet recommendations, and other guidelines carefully.

Various malformations of the intestines can occur as birth defects, including duplication of sections of the intestine or rectum, failure of the rectum to connect with the anus, and openings between the rectum and other structures such as the urethra or vagina. Surgical correction is usually needed. The success rate depends on the extent of the malformation.

The inability to control urination and defecation (incontinence) is often seen in Manx cats as a consequence of spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spine does not properly close before birth (see also Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Nervous System in Cats : Spinal Cord Disorders).


The most common liver defect present at birth is a portosystemic shunt). In a healthy animal, blood coming from the intestines is processed by the liver, which removes toxins from the bloodstream before they reach the brain or other organs. In an animal with a portosystemic shunt, however, blood bypasses the liver through one or more “shortcuts” (shunts) and enters directly into the general circulatory system. Himalayan and Persian cats have an increased incidence of this condition. Signs of a portosystemic shunt include nervous system disturbances and a failure to grow and thrive. Affected cats may also salivate more than normal, have a poor appetite, and be depressed. In the late stages, protein-containing fluid may accumulate in the abdomen, a condition called ascites. Your veterinarian may also notice enlargement of the kidneys and kidney stones. A definite diagnosis is made by using an opaque dye to highlight the blood vessels, followed by x-rays. This procedure can identify the location of the shunt and determine whether it is single or multiple. It also allows the veterinarian to assess whether surgical correction is possible. Animals with multiple shunts tend to do poorly.

Copper-associated hepatopathy is a defect that causes levels of copper to build up in the liver. This results in development of chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Treatment involves the use of drugs that bind copper (chelators), low copper diets, and other supportive measures directed at helping animals with liver disease.

Other developmental liver disorders include hepatic (liver) cysts, which generally cause no signs. They are important mainly because they must be differentiated from abscesses in the liver. A veterinarian who finds a hepatic cyst will often want to examine the kidneys, because hepatic cysts often occur along with polycystic kidney disease, especially in cats.

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