Managing Cat Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
You've noticed while cleaning out your cat's litter box that they've been having diarrhea lately, and you're a little concerned. Millions of cat parents witness this same issue with their cats every year. Whether your cat's version is the soft and gooey variety, the streaky bloody style or the unfortunately watery kind, you can be sure you're not alone in your litter box observations.
What is Cat Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is defined as stool that is softer, looser or more watery than it should be. Cats with diarrhea may defecate more frequently than usual, have accidents in the house, and may pass blood, mucus or even parasites in their feces.
Though most cases of cat diarrhea resolve in a matter of hours or days without intervention, cats who have it for more than a few days, or that show more severe signs (such as vomiting, appetite loss, bloody stools, watery stools or tiredness), should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
It's important to note that smaller cats and kittens with diarrhea are especially susceptible to dehydration, so they should always be evaluated by a vet.
Symptoms of Diarrhea in Cats
Along with having unhealthy-looking stools (usually loose or watery in appearance), cats with diarrhea may have the following symptoms:
- Mucus or blood in the stool
- Worms in the stool
- Accidents in the house
- Defecating with increased frequency
- Straining to defecate
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Tiredness or weakness
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
Causes of Cat Diarrhea
There are many causes of diarrhea. Often it occurs when a cat eats something unusual or when their meal plan changes abruptly. When switching from one kind of cat food to another, it's best to transition slowly over a week, gradually mixing in more of the new food and less of the old food. This transition allows the pet's digestive system to adjust and lowers the chance of diarrhea.
Other potential causes of diarrhea include:
- Bacterial overgrowth in the digestive tract
- Food allergies
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Antibiotics and other drugs
- Feline triaditis
- Liver disease
- Feline retroviruses (FeLV or FIV)
What to Do If Your Cat Has Diarrhea
Assess your cat's behavior. Do they appear to be feeling well or acting more tired than normal? Do they have a poor appetite or any other symptoms that stray from their norm? Are they also vomiting? If a case of cat diarrhea is an isolated incident that resolves spontaneously in less than a few hours and doesn't involve other symptoms, it's generally not treated as an emergency.
However, diarrhea over a prolonged period (more than a day), as well as diarrhea accompanied by a significant change in demeanor or other symptoms, should be treated as an emergency. Bright red blood or darker tarry stools are also considered an emergency.
Finally, note the diarrhea's frequency and appearance so that you can mention it to a vet at the next regular visit.
How Your Vet Determines the Cause
Vets may use several tools to determine the cause of your cat's diarrhea:
- The cat's medical history
- A physical examination
- Basic lab work (blood work, fecal exam)
- X-rays (radiography)
- Gastrointestinal function tests (blood tests)
- Endoscopy/colonoscopy and biopsy (to retrieve a tissue sample)
- Medication trials (assessing a response to medication)
- Food trials (assessing a response to certain foods)
Treating Cat Diarrhea
Treating diarrhea depends on its underlying cause. Here are some available treatments your vet may use and their rationale:
Parasite treatment: If parasites are believed to play a role, parasiticides (parasite killing medication) may be recommended. As a followup to treatment, a parasite prevention program is strongly recommended.
Antibiotics: In some cases, antibiotics are prescribed to kill off some of the unhealthier bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of afflicted cats.
Treating underlying conditions: In general, the ideal approach to treating diarrhea corrects its underlying cause. For example, cats with diarrhea as a result of hyperthyroidism will see their diarrhea resolve after their thyroid disease is managed.
How Nutrition Impacts Diarrhea
Nutrition plays a significant role in a healthy cat stool. Poor nutrition may lead to chronic (ongoing) diarrhea, so an assessment of your cat's nutrition will be conducted by your vet. They may recommend switching cat foods as a course of treatment. A lower-fat food or food richer in complex carbohydrates and digestible complex carbohydrates with added fiber may be recommended.
Chronic cases of diarrhea are typically treated with special meal plans alongside medications. In many cases, your veterinarian will recommend nutritional therapy for the rest of the cat's life to maintain help maintain proper digestion for conditions that cannot be outright cured. Your vet may recommend a therapeutic cat food like Prescription Diet that is specially formulated to help with digestion and diarrhea.
In cases where inflammatory diseases are a concern, a series of nutritional trials may be necessary to determine the cat's ideal meal plan. Hydrolyzed foods or novel protein foods are commonly recommended for these cats.
While cat diarrhea is unfortunate, with the right treatment and help from your veterinarian your cat can get back to the happy, healthy self.
Dr. Patty Khuly
Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.