Sorbitol is a low-calorie sugar substitute. Some manufacturers add sorbitol to canned wet cat food to improve the texture. In small amounts, sorbitol appears to be harmless for cats. However, sorbitol cannot be absorbed in the cat's intestines during digestion; in large amounts it may cause gas and diarrhea. Feeding cats a diet of dry cat food or sorbitol-free canned food improves these conditions.
Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in stone fruits such as peaches and plums. Manufacturers add sorbitol to foods to reduce calories, improve sweetness and retain moisture. Most cat food manufacturers add it to canned wet cat food to make it more palatable and improve the texture. It may be listed on pet food labels as sorbitol or glucitol.
Because sorbitol is poorly absorbed in the ileum and large intestine, it has a laxative effect and helps food pass more quickly through the digestive tract. A Roquette study of sorbitol intake in cats indicates it softens the feces, which also makes it useful to treat constipation. Many over-the-counter hairball remedies for cats contain sorbitol to help hairballs pass more easily through the digestive system.
Cats can develop diabetes just like you can. Diabetes is a condition whereby the body doesn't produce enough insulin to process glucose derived from digested foods. Diabetic cats produce sorbitol in their bodies in addition to whatever they ingest; excess sorbitol causes a painful condition called diabetic neuropathy. When the cat's diabetes is under control, diabetic neuropathy can be reserved.
Although the Roquette study demonstrated that sorbitol is generally safe for cats, some veterinarians aren't sure eating foods that contain it is a good idea for cats, especially diabetic cats. Some pet owners are concerned about any artificial ingredients in their cat's foods. If you want to avoid sorbitol because your pet is on an all-natural diet, choose blends that do not list sorbitol or glucitol among the ingredients on the label, and avoid wet foods.
Jeanne Grunert has been a writer since 1990. Covering business, marketing, gardening and health topics, her work has appeared in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books, "Horse Illustrated" and many national publications. Grunert earned her Master of Arts in writing from Queens College and a Master of Science in direct and interactive marketing from New York University.