Stress-Busting Nutrition: How Cat Food Supports the Brain-Gut Axis

Stress-Busting Nutrition: How Cat Food Supports the Brain-Gut Axis

Cats, like any other species, require a balanced diet to maintain optimal physical and mental health.

However, beyond purely physical aspects, the quality of a cat's diet also significantly influences its behavior and emotional well-being. This is due to the surprising connection between their intestine and brain.

In this article, we will explore a fundamental yet often underestimated aspect of cat health: the relationship between their nutrition and emotional well-being.

Intestine-Brain Axis

The communication between the brain and the intestinal microbiota occurs through a complex system called the "intestine-brain axis".

It includes several structures such as the enteric nervous system (formed by 100 million neurons located along the intestinal wall), the parasympathetic nervous system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and the vagus nerve.

This system allows the brain to send signals to the intestine that can affect its functioning, such as motility and absorption, and in turn, it receives influence from the intestinal microbiome through chemical signals that can modulate behavior.


  • Intestine: In the intestines of dogs and cats, there typically resides a vast microbial population comprised of bacteria, yeast, and fungi.

Bacteria are differentiated into two groups, the "beneficial" and the "harmful." Under normal conditions, the population of both groups is balanced, contributing to maintaining intestinal health and preventing inflammation or other pathologies.

However, the type of diet consumed by pets can influence and alter the balance of intestinal bacteria. Depending on the type of food (dry, wet, fresh, raw, or cooked) and its nutrient composition, it can either promote the growth of "good" bacteria and inhibit the development of "bad" bacteria, or vice versa.

  • Brain: In the brain, there are chemical substances called neurotransmitters and hormones. An example of a neurotransmitter is serotonin. This substance, among others, influences the behavior of our cats, as well as the control of emotions (aggression, stress, anxiety), and mood.

Serotonin is produced thanks to tryptophan, which is found predominantly in the gastrointestinal tract. For a sufficient amount of tryptophan to be produced, there must be a healthy microbiota in the intestine, which depends on proper nutrition.

What is an Anti-Anxiety Diet for Cats?

The foundation of best foof for cats with stress lies in nutritional balance, the quality, type, and freshness of the ingredients, and manufacturing processes. Achieving this balance results in an optimal microbiota or intestinal flora, which, as we have discussed, influences behavior.

BARF (Biologically Appropriate Raw Food) diet alongside wet food emerges as a highly recommended option for optimal cat health.

The BARF diet (an acronym for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" or "Bones and Raw Food") is a pet diet based on providing raw and natural foods, similar to what they would consume in the wild. For cats, this generally means a diet that includes raw meat, meaty bones, organs, and, in some cases, vegetables.

Regarding the benefits for cats' intestines, it is argued that a wet food and BARF diet can provide several benefits:

  1. Improved digestion: Raw and natural foods are easier for cats to digest than processed foods. This can help reduce the burden on the digestive system and promote better nutrient absorption.
  2. Greater microbial diversity: Raw food intake can promote a more diverse and healthier intestinal microbiota in cats. A balanced intestinal microbiota is associated with better digestive health and stronger immune function.
  3. Adequate hydration: Cats often do not drink enough water, which can lead to dehydration problems, especially in older cats or those with kidney diseases. Wet diets contain a high-water content, which can help keep cats well hydrated.
  4. Reduction of allergies and intolerances: Some cats may be sensitive to ingredients present in processed foods, such as preservatives, colorants, and additives. The BARF diet eliminates these ingredients and can help reduce allergic reactions and food intolerances.
  5. Weight control: Wet diets often have fewer carbohydrates and fewer calories than dry diets. This can help control the weight of cats, especially those prone to obesity.

Learn more about appropiate food for cats in our article I Started Feeding my Cat Raw. YOU SHOULD TOO!

How Can I Improve The Dry Food of My Cat?

Even if dry food is currently the only or most feasible option for you and your cat, you can still enhance your cat's diet by periodically adding the following ingredients to their kibble.

Some of the important supplements and foods that can contribute to maintaining a healthy microbiota in cats are:

  • Probiotics: Probiotics are live microorganisms that can provide benefits to intestinal health by balancing the bacterial flora. They can help improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal diseases.
There are probiotic supplements specifically designed for cats that contain probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. However, some fermented commercial foods, such as unsweetened natural yogurt, kefir, or homemade sauerkraut, may also contain strains of Bifidobacterium longum.
  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics are substances that promote the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. These bacteria produce volatile fatty acids that not only benefit intestinal health but can also influence serotonin production, resulting in less anxiety and better coping ability with stress.
Some examples of prebiotics include soluble fiber, such as inulin, beetroot pulp, carrots, or pumpkin.
  • Omega-3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids: Essential fatty acids, such as linoleic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, EPA (docosahexaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are important for brain development, memory, motor skills, stress response, skin and coat health, as well as for regulating the inflammatory response in the intestine.
Examples of foods containing these acids are fish oil, krill oil, sardines, herrings, or olive oil.
  • Water: Increase the water content of your cat’s dry food by mixing it with water, or meat or bone broth. Don’t forget that the most important nutrient in cat food is water!

What Can I give to my Cat for Stress?

Addressing stress in cats necessitates a holistic approach, and dietary adjustments can be a vital component in managing their well-being.

In this section, we'll answer the hot question "what food calms a cat?", delving into foods specifically designed to support cats during times of stress.

  • Beef: Did you know that beef is a natural antidepressant? The B vitamins it contains can regulate stress levels. beef is very rich in folic acid, and also contains pantothenic acid, also known as vitamin B5, which is great for anxiety. This vitamin enables the production of anti-stress hormones in the adrenal gland that controls the release of cortisol. And increased presence of pantothenic acid reduces blood cortisol and dulls the body’s response to stress. Beef liver is a great source of pantothenic acid.
  • Turkey: If your cat seems overly anxious in the evening hours, you may want to consider adding turkey to his diet. It’s a good source of L-tryptophan, an amino acid often associated with the regulation of sleep. Tryptophan also produces what researchers call “feel good chemicals”; it is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps both humans and cats feel cool, calm and collected.
  • Goat’s milk: The presence of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor to serotonin, may contribute to mood regulation and overall well-being in cats. Incorporating goat's milk into the diet of stressed cats can provide them with a nourishing and comforting option to support their mental and physical health during challenging times.

TIP! Always remember to introduce a new food to your cats slowly and monitor their digestive comfort closely.

Take Home Mesage

In conclusion, prioritizing your cat's nutritional needs is essential to ensure not only their physical health but also their emotional well-being. As we have seen, diet has a profound impact on your cat's overall quality of life, and therefore a natural and varied diet such as BARF or wet food can help increase their intestinal biodiversity and their consequent physical and mental health.

Finally, if your cat tends to feel overwhelmed, consider introducing stress-reducing foods into its diet.


Neus Torrent 

Veterinarian & Animal Nutritionist

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