Cat Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options
Diarrhea is no fun for you or your cat.
Felines may have diarrhea for a variety of reasons, ranging from mild and quick to resolve, to severe or even life-threatening. And since kitties often hide symptoms of illness until a condition has progressed and become more challenging to treat, taking note of any changes to their litter box habits may help you catch an illness earlier.
Here’s what you should know about diarrhea in cats.
What Causes Diarrhea in Cats?
Diarrhea means loose, runny, or unformed stool, which happens when fecal matter moves too quickly through the intestines and there is inadequate absorption of water and nutrients. This is usually accompanied by the urge to “go” more often and suddenly (so your kitty may miss the litter box and accidentally poo somewhere else in the home).
Diarrhea isn’t a disease, but rather a symptom that can occur due to a variety of reasons. As such, diarrhea can be an indication of an underlying health problem.
Some of the most common causes of diarrhea in cats are:
- Dietary indiscretion (for example, eating table scraps, garbage, or some old food they found under the couch).
- A new food.
- Food allergies and sensitivities.
- Digestive issues such as IBD (inflammatory bowel disease).
- Side effects of medications or supplements.
- Stress, brought on by events like boarding or traveling. Cats are creatures of habit, so any change at home may cause stress.
- Toxin ingestions, such as toxic plants.
- Medical conditions like kidney disease, a thyroid problem, certain cancers, and more.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it includes some of the most common things veterinarians diagnose when treating kitties for diarrhea.
SEE ALSO: Why Your Cat Is Throwing Up
Is Cat Diarrhea an Emergency?
Depending on the pet and the specific cause of diarrhea, it’s possible the diarrhea could be self-limiting — meaning it will improve on its own in a day or two — and is only a minor inconvenience. In these cases, a cat will probably continue eating and feel like their normal self otherwise.
At the other end of the scale, diarrhea could be associated with something serious, even life threatening — whether it’s the underlying medical condition or the health consequences of severe diarrhea.
So how do you know if your cat’s diarrhea is serious?
When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution and seek the guidance of a veterinarian. Give us a call if symptoms are mild, or walk-in for a visit if any of the below apply to your pet:
- Your pet is a young kitten (their immune systems aren’t fully developed so they can get ill quickly), a very old kitty, or a cat with a chronic health condition.
- Severe or very watery diarrhea, especially if not improving after a day.
- Blood or a lot of mucus in their diarrhea.
- Dark or tarry stools.
- Vomiting with the diarrhea, especially if unable to eat or drink.
- Loss of appetite.
- Fever, lethargy, or listlessness.
- Weight loss.
- Dehydration (if your cat’s gums are dry and pale, instead of pink and moist, that could indicate dehydration).
Tip: If you have more than one cat sharing a litter box and you’re not sure who is having the diarrhea, try separating them in different rooms (with a litter box in each room) for a day.
How Is Diarrhea Treated in Cats?
Treatment involves a combination of supportive care and addressing the underlying cause.
Supportive care often includes the following:
- Electrolyte-balanced fluid support. This may be administered under the skin as an outpatient procedure or via an IV catheter if a kitty needs to be hospitalized.
- Medications to stop the diarrhea.
- Medications to soothe the digestive tract or decrease inflammation.
- A bland diet or prescription diet for sensitive stomachs.
- Fasting or feeding smaller meals for 12-24 hours (check with your vet first, as this is not appropriate for all cats).
For some cats, especially those who are otherwise healthy and just ate something that upset their stomach, a couple of the above treatments may be all they need.
After performing a physical examination, your vet may also suggest diagnostic tests, such as:
- A fecal check (to look for intestinal parasites).
- Infectious disease testing.
- X-rays or an ultrasound.
- Additional tests as needed.
The number and type of diagnostic tests performed depends on your kitty’s symptoms and medical history. After that, your vet will suggest additional treatments to address the underlying cause directly. This keeps your kitty as healthy as possible, and minimizes the chance of diarrhea returning after supportive care treatments are finished.
For example, a cat with intestinal worms will receive parasite treatments; a kitty with an overactive thyroid will receive medication for the condition; cats with food allergies may need a prescription diet long-term; and so on.
SEE ALSO: Allergies in Cats
What Do You Give a Cat for Diarrhea At Home?
If your kitty’s diarrhea is severe, or if they’re acting ill or displaying some of the symptoms listed above, visit your vet as soon as possible.
Regardless of the underlying cause, diarrhea may result in complications such as dehydration, electrolyte loss, bleeding in the intestines, weakening of the protective barrier of the intestinal tract (making a cat more prone to infection), and inability to absorb essential nutrients.
However, if your pet is a healthy adult who has mild to moderate diarrhea, is eating, and is otherwise acting like their normal self, it’s usually okay to monitor for a day or two (assuming the diarrhea doesn’t get worse) before seeking veterinary care.
Follow these tips to help your furry friend get back to their normal self:
- Make sure water is available to your cat at all times.
- Put down an extra litter box if your kitty can’t make it to the box in time and is having accidents.
- Try a bland diet — ask your vet about picking up a sensitive stomach food or incorporating pumpkin into your cat's diet.
An important note: Don’t give your cat human or over-the-counter medications without checking with your veterinarian first — many are not safe for pets and should not be administered without veterinary guidance.
Preventing Diarrhea in Cats
To prevent diarrhea in the first place, follow the tips below.
- Keep your pet up to date on all routine care, including vaccines and parasite prevention.
- Block your cat’s access to garbage.
- Avoid feeding your pet table scraps, especially fatty, creamy, or spicy foods.
- If you need to change to a new food, do it gradually over 1-2 weeks, so you don’t upset their stomach.
- Ask your veterinarian about probiotics or other supportive measures if your kitty gets stressed while boarding, during travel, etc.
SEE ALSO: Cat Vaccinations
Diarrhea is one of the most common reasons for a veterinary visit. So there’s a good chance your cat will have at least a few episodes in their lifetime. And, with chronic digestive or inflammatory conditions, your kitty may need long-term management through special diets or medications.
But by taking a few precautions, you can minimize diarrhea episodes — so an upset stomach won’t interfere with playtime, cuddle time, and all the other activities your cat loves!