Overview

Severity: Medium
Life stage: All
  • Most diarrhea affecting cats is straightforward and easy to treat.
  • However, some cases require veterinary intervention and medication.
  • There can be many causes of diarrhea in cats ranging from intestinal parasites to dietary problems.
  • Taking note of the look of the diarrhea and your cat's behavior can help veterinarians diagnose the cause.
  • Treatment may include a dietary change, IV fluids, medications, and more.

Diarrhea happens. It’s not pretty. It’s not pleasant. But it’s something that cat parents will likely experience while caring for their feline friends. 

Luckily, most diarrhea affecting cats is straightforward and easy to treat—a few days of medication and an easy-to-digest diet and your cat will be back to curling up on your lap. But when diarrhea gets severe or lasts for more than a few days, it may be a sign of serious illness and it’s time for a trip to the vet.

Cat Diarrhea: An Overview

Diarrhea in cats is characterized by soft or liquid stool that results from infection or inflammation of the intestines. 

During regular digestion, a cat’s intestines contract and relax in a specific sequence (called peristalsis), which helps to pass partially digested food along the intestines until it is fully digested and the remains are ready to leave the body as feces. 

When there is a problem in the intestines, these contractions often increase, leading to the cramping, discomfort, and the urgency of diarrhea. If your cat is sick or experiencing a gastrointestinal issue, her body does not have the time or capacity to absorb liquid and nutrients and it is all lost as diarrhea. As a result, your cat may not want to eat or may vomit any food she does take in. Diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration in cats. 

Cats can experience acute diarrhea or chronic diarrhea. 

  • Acute diarrhea comes on quickly and resolves within a few days. It is very rarely a serious medical concern. 
  • Chronic diarrhea, the kind that keeps coming back or won’t resolve despite multiple trips to the veterinarian and medications, can be serious or even fatal for your cat. Chronic diarrhea in cats can lead to malnutrition. 

Types of Diarrhea in Cats

Sick cat lying on pillow

Diarrhea can look different depending on the cause. As gross as it sounds, being able to describe it to your veterinarian (or even show her a picture) can go a long way in helping to diagnose and treat your cat. 

Watery diarrhea: This is often what happens when your cat has already expelled all of the fecal material she has but continues to feel the urge to defecate. It can also happen if there is an obstruction preventing fecal material from passing normally.

Bloody diarrhea: Red, bloody diarrhea in cats can happen for a lot of different reasons. There may be just a little bit of blood visible on the outer surface of the diarrhea or it can seem as if the diarrhea is pure blood. Any diarrhea with blood (or formed stool with blood) is a reason to take your cat to the veterinarian. 

Diarrhea with mucus: This type of diarrhea in cats indicates irritation to the inner lining of the intestines. Normally, a layer of mucus protects the cells of the intestines from any irritation caused by fecal material as it passes through. Once irritation starts, that lining becomes unstable and attaches to the fecal material as it passes through, then out. If the diarrhea is mostly mucus, that may indicate that there is something stuck, preventing normal passage of fecal material. 

White-gray diarrhea: Diarrhea may not be the same color as normal, healthy cat stool. A white-gray, pasty diarrhea is commonly associated with the parasite coccidia. Sometimes coccidia causes white diarrhea while other times it may look more yellow. Coccidia is a single-celled organism that causes diarrhea mostly in kittens and unhealthy cats or those in overcrowded situations. Coccidia requires prescription treatment from your veterinarian.

Dark (tarry) diarrhea: This type of diarrhea in cats (also known as melena) indicates digested blood. This means that the source of the blood is located in the early part of the gastrointestinal system—the esophagus, the stomach, or the first section of the intestines (duodenum). The blood has a dark color because it has been digested along with the food as it travels through the intestines. Cats are much less likely than humans to experience stomach ulcers, but they are one cause of tarry stool. Dark diarrhea is a reason to take your cat to the veterinarian right away.

What Causes Diarrhea in Cats?

Diarrhea in cats has a variety of causes ranging from diet and nutrition to stress and disease. It’s important to take note of any changes in your cat’s routine and observe her other behavior when working with your veterinarian to pinpoint the cause of diarrhea. 

Below are some common causes of diarrhea in cats:

Dietary changes: Diarrhea signals a problem with digestion, so diet and nutrition can play a role. Cats may develop diarrhea due to eating table scraps or unfamiliar food. But it can also happen as a result of your cat eating non-food items such as tinsel, rubber bands, and bits of toys. Less commonly, cats have food allergies or sensitivities that cause diarrhea. 

Toxicity: Some plants are toxic to cats, and curious cats who chew on them get sick with diarrhea, vomiting, or other signs of illness. 

Stress: Cats are very sensitive to change. Change leads to stress and stress leads to diarrhea. This can be from something obvious like boarding your cat while you’re away on vacation or hosting a large family gathering at your house. But triggers of stress and anxiety in cats can also include less obvious things like moving furniture or going from using the heat to the air conditioning in the spring. 

Parasites and bacteria: Infectious diarrhea, caused by parasites or bacteria, is most common in kittens, outdoor cats, and those with other diseases that compromise the immune system. Intestinal parasites are a common infectious cause of diarrhea including both worms and single-celled organisms such as coccidia and tritrichomonas. There are not many viruses that cause diarrhea in cats, but there are many types of bacteria that can cause diarrhea. 

Other: Nearly anything can cause cat diarrhea. It can be a condition your cat is born with, result from diseases of other organs, or have an idiopathic cause, meaning that a cause for the diarrhea is never identified. 

Symptoms of Diarrhea in Cats

Cat showing symptoms of diarrhea

Diarrhea is actually a symptom, and not a disease in itself. It indicates that there is a problem somewhere in the digestive system. It’s important to work with a veterinarian to discover the cause of the diarrhea and develop a treatment plan. 

Cats with diarrhea may take more frequent trips to the litter box or have accidents outside of the litter box. 

Symptoms associated with diarrhea in cats include:

  • Dehydration
  • Decreased energy (lethargy)
  • Decreased appetite (inappetance or anorexia)
  • Defecating outside the litter box
  • Fecal material around a cat’s anus

Diagnosing Diarrhea in Cats

Diagnosing the cause for diarrhea in cats can range from straightforward to complicated. Diagnosis always starts with a physical examination of your cat. Your veterinarian will check for dehydration, pain or discomfort in the abdomen, weight loss, and other signs of illness. 

Common intestinal parasites can be diagnosed during a veterinary visit with a simple fecal test. If your veterinarian is concerned about an obstruction, she will recommend X-rays and/or an abdominal ultrasound. If exposure to a toxin is suspected, such as from a plant or household cleaner, your veterinarian will perform a complete blood count and blood chemistry panel to assess any internal damage. For chronic or recurrent diarrhea, your veterinarian may also recommend a blood test for specific markers of abnormal digestion. 

Evaluating the effect of a prescription diet designed to address the cause of the diarrhea can help pinpoint the cause when other tests are not helpful. Prescription foods used to treat diarrhea include hypoallergenic, low-fat, low-residue, probiotic, and high-fiber diets.

How to Treat Diarrhea in Cats

Veterinarian treating cat at clinic

Treatment for diarrhea in cats depends on the severity level and the cause. 

Treating Diarrhea in Cats at Home

For mild cases of diarrhea, cat parents can try to resolve the symptoms at home. Ask your veterinarian before trying these at home remedies.

Try a bland diet. If your cat has mild diarrhea, try a bland, easily-digestible diet like canned baby food (meat-only flavors). Give small meals, about 1/2 a jar at a time, throughout the day and this simple change may stop diarrhea in your cat. 

Add fiber to your cat’s diet. Some diarrhea is fiber-responsive, meaning that adding fiber to your cat’s diet can resolve it. You can add a very small amount (ask your vet for your cat’s correct dose) of a fiber supplement or one teaspoon of plain, canned pumpkin to your cat’s meals once a day. 

Reduce your cat’s stress. Since diarrhea in cats can be stress-related, help your cat relax. Provide your cat with places to hide and spend time alone. Add another litter box in a new location, a new water dish, and an additional scratching post or new toys. Consider a Feliway Adapter or spray to help calm your cat. 

*Do NOT give your cat Imodium (loperamide) or other medications that you might use yourself. 

Veterinary Treatment

If your cat’s diarrhea does not resolve in 24-48 hours, schedule a veterinary visit. Your veterinarian may use one of the following diarrhea treatments to help your cat feel better.

Medications: If your cat’s diarrhea is due to infection, your veterinarian will select the right medication to kill the offending organism. If your veterinarian cannot pinpoint an infectious organism, she may prescribe an anti-diarrheal medication that helps by reducing inflammation in the intestines. 

Diet change: For diarrhea related to food allergies or sensitivities, your veterinarian will prescribe a novel-protein diet, which might include alternative protein sources such as venison, sardines, salmon and trout. Do not change your cat’s food without your veterinarian’s assistance, as this can worsen diarrhea or make it more difficult to treat in the long term. 

Probiotics: While there are over-the-counter probiotics available for your cat, the best ones are by prescription through your veterinarian. These can help restore balance to the digestive system and relieve your cat’s diarrhea.

Immunotherapy: Some types of chronic diarrhea in cats require treatment with steroids and other strong medications that impact the overall function of the immune system. 

Veterinary help for cat diarrhea is important if the diarrhea worsens, becomes bloody, or if your cat stops eating. If your cat has any other conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroid disease, or kidney disease, it is best to make a veterinary appointment. 

General Cost to Treat Diarrhea in Cats 

The cost to diagnose and treat diarrhea in cats can vary depending on the severity and your geographic location. 

Cat owners can expect to spend the following on treating diarrhea in cats:

  • X-rays and imaging: $200-$500
  • Blood tests: $100-$200
  • Medication (for acute diarrhea): $20-$50
  • Medication (for chronic diarrhea): $20-$100 per month

How to Prevent Cat Diarrhea

Cat by food bowl

It is possible to prevent some types of diarrhea in cats. Below are some things you can do to help.

Watch your cat’s diet. Don’t make any sudden food changes or feed your cat table scraps. Stick to a complete and balanced cat food. If you suspect food allergies or your veterinarian recommended a food change, switch foods gradually to avoid gastrointestinal upset.

Use a monthly deworming product. Giving your cat a monthly dewormer will prevent intestinal parasites that cause diarrhea. Dewormer for cats is available as a chewable or topical treatment. This is especially important if your cat goes outdoors. 

Reduce your cat’s stress. Since any kind of stress can also cause diarrhea in cats, make sure your cat always has a safe place when making changes such as new people in the house, new furniture, and even holiday decorations. 

Keep toxins out of reach. Make sure to secure any household cleaners in locked cabinets and keep toxic plants out of reach of your feline friend. 

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