UTI in Cats: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention
UTI stands for urinary tract infection. It most commonly refers to a bacterial infection of the urinary bladder. Though cat urinary tract infections are relatively infrequent, urinary issues as a whole are very common in cats.
Whether the issue is truly an infection or another type of urinary condition, discomfort and serious complications can result. It’s important to seek veterinary care to keep your pet safe and relieve the distress and pain that come with urinary tract diseases.
Urinary Issues in Cats: What Cat Owners Should Know about FLUTD, FIC, and UTIs
Before delving deeper into feline urinary conditions, it would be helpful to define a few terms…
Many pet parents are familiar with UTIs, or urinary tract infections, since the condition occurs commonly in humans. However, while UTIs do occur in cats, they are less common—unless there is an underlying condition that puts a kitty at a higher risk of developing an infection.
FLUTD stands for feline lower urinary tract disease. The “lower” urinary tract refers to the bladder and the urethra (tube that carries urine from the bladder to the opening where it exits the body). This is different from the “upper” urinary tract—the kidneys and ureters (tubes between the kidneys and bladder). Upper urinary issues can be very serious, but they are a lot less common than lower urinary tract issues.
The term FLUTD (often pronounced FLUTE-id) doesn’t refer to one specific health condition. Instead, it’s an umbrella term covering a variety of issues of the lower urinary tract, such as infections, bladder stones, inflammation/FIC, etc. Most of these conditions have similar symptoms, so diagnostic testing is needed to determine what’s going on.
FIC stands for feline idiopathic cystitis, and it’s a very common condition in kitties. Cystitis means inflammation of the bladder. It may lead to a secondary infection, but an infection is not the cause of the condition. “Idiopathic” means the cause is unknown. Stress is believed to be a major contributor to FIC.
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Signs of a UTI (or FLUTD) in Cats
The most common symptoms of a urinary issue in cats include:
Frequent trips to the litter box. A cat might produce just a small amount of urine each time.
Urinating outside the litter box, often on cool, smooth surfaces like tile floors, the bathtub, or a sink.
Straining, pain, or vocalization during urination. Sometimes, pet owners mistake the straining for constipation rather than a urinary issue.
Blood or a pink hue in the urine.
Excessive licking of the genital area.
General symptoms of feeling unwell (lethargy, decreased appetite, fever, etc.) or changes in behavior.
Cats with urinary conditions won’t necessarily show ALL of these symptoms. Cats are good at hiding symptoms of illness, especially in the early stages.
So, a kitty may show just one or two of these symptoms. Or they may show a behavior not listed here.
How Do Cats Get UTIs?
There are many possible causes, so here we’ll cover the most common reasons why a kitty might develop a UTI. This includes:
Infections secondary to FLUTD or FIC. Anything that causes inflammation of the bladder could lead to a UTI.
Stress. Stress contributes to FIC, which may in turn result in UTIs.
Uroliths (stones in the urinary tract). Most commonly, stones occur in the bladder. But kidney stones are also possible. Cats with very concentrated urine may be at a higher risk for uroliths than cats with dilute (watery) urine. In concentrated urine, minerals can converge to form crystals and then stones.
Underlying health conditions. Any health issue that affects the urinary tract may put a kitty at higher UTI risk. Examples include kidney disease, hyperthyroidism (too much thyroid hormone in the body), immuno-compromising diseases, and diabetes mellitus (which increases sugar in the urine).
Weight and grooming issues. Cats who are overweight, or who have a condition such as arthritis, may have more difficulty grooming themselves. This could lead to contamination with fecal bacteria into the urethra.
Anatomical defects of the urinary tract, injuries to the bladder or spinal cord, and cancers. While less common, these conditions lead to persistent urinary problems in some cats.
Age. When cat urinary tract infections do occur, they are more common in older cats. Often, this is related to underlying health conditions.
SEE ALSO: Allergies in Cats
Urinary Problems Can Be Serious—Even Life-Threatening
In any discussion of feline urinary tract diseases, it’s important to note the possibility of a urinary obstruction. This is when the urethra becomes blocked and urine can’t exit the body. Obstructions can happen regardless of what caused the urinary symptoms in the first place (urinary tract infections, FIC, etc.).
A urinary obstruction, in addition to being extremely painful, can be fatal in a matter of hours. It needs to be treated immediately.
With no exit for the urine, the bladder gets large and may rupture. Or the backup can lead to permanent kidney damage or release of toxins into the body.
Obstructions are much more common in male cats than in female cats, since their urethra is long and narrow. Symptoms typically include repeated attempts to urinate without producing anything, crying in pain, a painful abdomen, and distress.
While a urinary obstruction is the most urgent complication, there are additional complications that can develop if a urinary problem is left untreated.This may include development of a UTI (if an infection isn’t already present) or urinary stones.
Diagnosing a UTI in Cats
Reaching a diagnosis is an important step that helps direct the course of treatment.
One crucial test is a urine analysis—or urinalysis for short. This involves measuring urine specific gravity (your cat’s ability to concentrate their urine) and pH, as well as looking for the presence of bacteria, blood, inflammatory cells, crystals, sugar, and other indicators of urinary tract health or abnormalities.
Most commonly, urine is collected at the vet’s office using a sterile needle and syringe. This provides the most accurate results, since it eliminates bacterial contamination from the outer genital region. It’s a fast procedure that most cats tolerate well.
In some cases, such as if a cat’s bladder is empty at the vet visit, your vet team may request you collect a urine sample at home. This involves using a special type of non-absorbent litter and returning the sample to your vet. You’ll receive specific instructions on how to collect, store, and return the urine sample.
If a UTI is suspected, your vet will also recommend a urine culture and sensitivity. This test helps guide antibiotic usage—to ensure treatment is truly effective, and to decrease the risk of developing an antibiotic resistant infection.
Depending on your cat’s symptoms, physical exam, and medical history, a vet may recommend additional tests to look for an underlying health condition. For example, this could include bloodwork to look for a metabolic or hormonal condition, or x-rays and an ultrasound to look for bladder stones.
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UTI Treatment for Cats
For cats with a urinary obstruction, the first step is life-saving treatments to relieve the obstruction.
Treatment for less complicated urinary issues may include…
Antibiotics. Often, a vet will begin a common type of antibiotic while awaiting the results of the urine culture and sensitivity test. Since that test takes a few days, it’s humane to give a kitty something to relieve their symptoms in the meantime. Then, if a different antibiotic is needed based on the test results, your vet will inform you.
It’s crucial to give the entire course of antibiotics. Don’t stop early because your pet is feeling better. Otherwise, the infection could come right back!
Pain medications or anti-inflammatories. Any urinary condition can be painful and stressful to a cat. These medications provide relief and help the bladder calm down so it can heal.
Adequate water intake. Fluid intake helps to flush out the bladder. Encourage your kitty to drink as much as possible (see the prevention section below for more tips on how to do this).
Rechecking the urine. This helps ensure the infection is truly gone and decreases the risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant infection. Your vet will let you know when a recheck is needed.
Treating any underlying causes. If your pet has a medical condition—such as one of the conditions listed in this article—that led to a UTI, they will need specific treatment for that condition. Your vet team will instruct you on the next steps.
Your veterinarian may have different or additional recommendations based on your kitty’s individual needs. Always refer to the instructions from your vet team.
Never give medications without checking with your vet first. Many human medications are toxic to cats!
What About Home Remedies for Cat Urinary Tract Infections?
If you’ve been Googling urinary issues in cats, you’ve probably read about home remedies like probiotics, apple cider vinegar, cranberry juice, or other methods.
While certain supplements or remedies may be appropriate for some cats, they are definitely not one-size-fits-all. Some could make the problem worse or cause additional health problems.
When cat-safe supplements are given for urinary issues, they are more effective for long-term prevention and less helpful for healing a current urinary problem. So, using home remedies could prolong a cat’s suffering by delaying more appropriate medical treatment.
Prior to giving your pet any medication, supplement, or home remedy, talk to your vet to ensure the plan is not only effective, but safe for your kitty.
What’s the Prognosis for a UTI in Cats?
A UTI typically clears up well with appropriate medical treatment, including antibiotics. Severe UTIs may require a longer course of medication.
Complications of UTIs may require additional medical care. For example, a cat with a urinary obstruction requires sedation and placement of a urinary catheter to relieve the blockage, followed by hospitalization for a few days.
What About Cats with Recurrent UTIs?
In cats, chronic or recurring UTIs typically indicate an underlying urinary or medical issue that needs to be addressed.
A cure is possible in some cases. But for many conditions, lifelong management is needed. The type of treatment and management varies depending on what caused the urinary issues in the first place.
Preventing Future UTIs in Cats
Prevention of UTIs depends on what caused the UTI in the first place. So, always refer to your vet’s specific instructions. But some general tips that could help include…
Manage any health conditions that could lead to UTIs.
Encourage water intake. Always keep fresh, clean, cool water available. A cat water fountain may encourage some cats to drink more. Your vet may also recommend a change in diet to canned food, since it contains a lot more water than dry food/kibble. It’s important to discuss any diet changes with your vet, since not all canned foods are created equal. A high quality dry food may be much better than a low quality wet food.
Help your kitty with hygiene if needed. Cats who are overweight or have arthritis may have difficulty grooming their backsides
For cats with certain types of chronic urinary issues, prescription diets or cat-safe supplements may help with urinary tract health. Check with your vet first.
Clean the litter box each day and be observant of changes in urine quantity (increase or decrease) or quality (red color, etc.). Any changes in your kitty’s urination habits could help clue you into a urinary problem earlier, since cats try to hide their symptoms.
If your cat develops a UTI, give the medications exactly as prescribed. Don’t stop antibiotics early, or the infection could come back and be more difficult to treat.
Address stress and lifestyle factors. Stress, including boredom or a dislike of something about the litter box, can contribute to urinary issues in cats. A few simple tips include…
Provide enough litter boxes. This means one per cat, plus one additional. Avoid scented or dusty litter. Keep litter boxes in quiet, traffic-free areas (i.e., a bedroom rather than the laundry room).
Give your cat physical and mental stimulation to prevent obesity, boredom, and stress. This means exercise and playtime, as well as attention each day.
Offer your kitty places where they can express their natural behaviors and feel safe. Examples include scratching posts, cat trees for climbing, etc.
If there will be ANY change in the household (someone leaving for school, changing work hours, getting new furniture, etc.) talk to your vet team about ways to minimize stress for your cat. Kitties don’t always appreciate change.
For more tips, visit The Ohio State University’s Indoor Pet Initiative.
When to See the Vet
A vet visit is necessary anytime a cat shows urinary symptoms. If there’s any possibility of a urinary obstruction, an immediate, emergency vet visit is needed!
UTIs and other urinary issues cause discomfort and stress. Prompt treatment will help prevent complications and provide some much needed relief.