No one likes to talk about diarrhea, but … there it is. Sitting in the litter box, or maybe not in the litter box, or somewhere between the two. It can’t be ignored. Messy and disgusting – but a sign of something gone wrong in your cat’s digestive tract.
Your cat has diarrhea when he passes watery, strange looking (gray or yellow), foul-smelling bowel movements more frequently than normal. It happens when fecal material moves through the intestine quickly – too quickly to absorb water, nutrients and electrolytes. Your cat, who is usually very finicky about using the litter box, may have uncontrollable accidents around the house or just outside the box, due to the urgency of releasing the bowel movement. Not a pretty situation, and certainly tough on your home and everyone else involved.
Most of the time, diarrhea will either resolve itself or be cured just by changing your cat’s diet (covered later in this article) But sometimes, diarrhea can be a sign of a more serious condition.
Cat Diarrhea Symptoms
Typically, your cat will exhibit some (if not all) of these symptoms:
- Soft, watery, frequent bowel movements
- Straining with small amounts of soft/sometimes bloody/mucoid stool
- Blood or mucus in the feces
- Straining to poop
- Lack of energy and/or appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Staining and soiling of her fur, particularly noticeable on long hair cats, around the back end
Cat Diarrhea Causes
The list of possible causes is long – and some causes are worse than others:
- Abrupt change in diet
- Eating garbage or food that’s gone bad – or eating non-food material
- Inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract
- Intestinal blockage
- Food allergies
- Neurologic abnormality
- Viral, bacterial or fungal infection
- Kidney, pancreatic or liver disease
- Immune system abnormality
- Hyperactive thyroid gland
- Feline distemper
- Drugs and toxins
- Possible anorexia
When is it serious enough to call the vet?
If your cat has diarrhea for a day or two and is eating and behaving normally otherwise, you probably don’t need to worry about it – it will go away on its own.
But if you see any of the following symptoms, they are signs you need to take your cat to the vet immediately:
- Your cat is vomiting, or is lethargic, appears to be in pain, has a fever or exhibits any other disturbing symptoms.
- The diarrhea contains blood – either bright red or tarry and dark, or is explosive, and watery or is very frequent.
- A sign that is not readily visible is that your cat is in danger of dehydration. This is especially important if she’s a kitten, or, very old, has a medical issue that you are aware of, or she has a health problem that would impact her immune system. If the diarrhea has gone on for a few days (2 or 3) then it is likely your cat is indeed dehydrated and should have veterinarian attention.
Any of these symptoms listed above may indicate that you could be looking at a medical emergency, so don’t hesitate to hurry your cat off to your veterinarian. Try to recap the sequence of events in your mind, or, better, on paper, so that you can report the facts to your vet for a quicker, more accurate diagnosis.
And STOP YOURSELF if you’re tempted to give your cat human medications to stem the tide of diarrhea. Over-the-counter medications for humans are much stronger than anything you’d want to give your cat and can be harmful to your kitty. For example, aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen are extremely toxic to cats. The human formulation of Imodium was not meant for cats, even in smaller doses!
Your vet will perform a complete physical exam on your cat, including diagnostic blood tests, electrolyte panels and urinalysis. If he/she thinks your cat swallowed something to cause the problem, an X-ray may be in order. And you’ll most likely need to bring in a sample of the feces to check for various infections and parasites (an easy way to accomplish this is to take a plastic bag, put your hand around the outside to push it inside out, then grab the feces with the bag and ‘pull’ the edges of the bag back over the feces (like starting with the bag inside out and pull it back to outside out
One of the biggest concerns for your cat will be loss of fluid, resulting in dehydration, especially if your cat has also been vomiting. If it’s really serious, the vet may administer intravenous or subcutaneous fluids (fluids that are administered under the skin).
How can I stop or prevent cat diarrhea from happening?
It’s always a good idea to “follow the doctor’s orders” when it comes to treating your cat. After diagnosing the cause of the diarrhea, the vet may prescribe medications, de-wormers and other therapies to relieve the problem, so be sure to read the dosing instructions carefully.
Some other things the vet may recommend:
For adult cats who are otherwise healthy, simplify your cat’s diet. Don’t give him treats or scraps from the dinner table, but stick with nutritional cat food that feeds the good bacteria found in your cat’s intestine.
Veterinarians have changed from saying “withhold food for 24 hours” to “don’t withhold food” – cat anorexia can lead to other major problems. Instead, in some cases, you might want to switch to a bland diet such as boiled rice or pasta with boiled skinless chicken, potatoes, turkey, low fat cottage cheese or yoghurt, and even meat-based baby foods. Also, making meals smaller is a great option to provide nutrients without ‘overloading’ your cat’s system. Feed smaller amounts more frequently but monitor her physical acceptance of the food. So if she can tolerate her usual feedings of twice a day broken down to four times a day, for example, that may help her system settle and heal while still consuming appropriate nutrients.
If you recently changed your cat’s diet before she started with the diarrhea, go back to what you were previously feeding her to see if that helps. It’s possible something in the new food disagreed with her.
Make sure your cat has plenty of fresh water available, at all times. Adding another bowl of water with diluted chicken or beef broth may encourage your cat to drink more. Hydration is so important to overall health! Warm water added to canned cat food is another tip. Water and electrolytes are vital to your cat’s health, so you might need to get creative in providing sources.
If you have household guests coming you may want to put an additional litter box and fresh water options in the area where she is most comfortable, in addition to the usual locations. Additional household activity can upset your cat’s normal routine which can upset her system. Don’t let the only litter-box options be in an area where your cat has to face the increased activity since this may cause too much stress for her.
Probiotics may be helpful, but you should make sure the vet is okay with this. If you’re given the go-ahead, pick a probiotic made by a reputable company that’s specifically formulated for use in cats.
Monitor your cat. If you don’t see improvement after two or three days, or if your cat isn’t drinking water or still acts sick, take her back to the vet.