If you're reading this article, you're likely dealing with quite a mess. Diarrhea is no fun for anyone. Unfortunately, it can also affect your feline companion.
Although cat diarrhea can be a nightmare for a pet parent to have to constantly clean up, it can also be a telltale sign that your kitty may be a little unwell or have a more severe condition needing medical attention.
In this article, we will cover reasons why your cat may be suffering from diarrhea, and how to treat and prevent it. Don't panic, there is hope. Let's get started!
What is Diarrhea
You've likely experienced a bout of diarrhea at some point in your life. Diarrhea is characterized as unformed or loose stools. It can occur suddenly and end quickly (acute diarrhea), or last weeks to months and occur intermittently (chronic diarrhea). These two types of diarrhea have different causes and treatments.
Cat owners should understand that diarrhea is not a disease but rather a symptom of many different diseases. It is a non-specific symptom, meaning that it is common and typically accompanied by other clinical signs that vets use to make an accurate diagnosis.
It is unusual for diarrhea to be the sole symptom.
Typically, one episode of diarrhea isn't a cause for alarm. However, if diarrhea occurs regularly, it's not something that should be ignored.
What Causes Diarrhea
People typically associate diarrhea with a stomach bug or food poisoning. However, there are many causes of diarrhea.
Identifying what’s causing your cat’s diarrhea is the first step in figuring out how to stop it.
Understanding the reason for diarrhea will also help pet parents prevent it from happening again.
A common reason for diarrhea is a change in diet. Many pet owners know what it's like to have a picky eater on their hands. Your furry companion may absolutely adore their food for a handful of months, then suddenly begin turning their noses up at dinnertime.
As a doting cat parent, you want your feline to enjoy delicious and nutritious food, so you make a quick switch to a new food option. Boom. Diarrhea.
Consider switching up your cat's food. This may help reduce gastrointestinal (GI) tract inflammation and help prevent diarrhea, cat vomiting, and many other unpleasant symptoms.
However, it is imperative to go slowly when transitioning to a new food. Gradually replace small portions of the existing food with the new food. The last thing you want to do is make the switch to great, new food at the expense of upsetting your cat's fragile stomach in the process.
A lot of commercial pet foods are rendered ingredients, which are ingredients that don’t enter the human food chain. This makes sense to some pet owners until you begin to consider what these ingredients actually are.
Cat food can contain rendered ingredients like bird feathers and beaks, animal skin, hooves, eyes, and heads. These ingredients, which are protein sources, are processed to remove harmful bacteria before they are added to pet food. However, they may upset a cat’s stomach.
We recommend looking into human-grade cat food, which is, at least by definition, edible for humans. It is especially good if your feline friend has a weak stomach or is having digestive issues. Be aware, though, that human-grade cat foods are not necessarily nutritionally complete or balanced. Look for a human-grade cat food that has the AAFCO label that verifies that the food meets minimal nutritional requirements for cats.
Additionally, many holistic vets recommend feeding a raw food diet when possible. Talk to your vet and make sure that you are feeding your cat the best food you can that meets your cat’s nutritional needs. It can truly make a world of a difference for your furry friend.
Food Intolerances & Food Allergies
Food intolerances and food allergies can also cause diarrhea in cats. Pet parents may not realize that, like people, their feline can develop allergies.
In many cases, food intolerances and food allergies is at the root of chronic diarrhea, which occurs intermittently over long periods of time.
Interestingly, allergies in cats can develop when the cat is fed the same food for too long.
Feeding your feline the same protein every day (even if it is high-quality) may, over time, cause gut inflammation and lead to food allergies. Finding new ways to switch up your cat's food is a wonderful way to prevent GI inflammation, thus preventing allergies and cat diarrhea.
A telltale sign that your cat may have allergies is overall good health, except for the allergy.
Are your cat's energy levels normal? Is your cat at a healthy weight? Does diarrhea occur intermittently without a major life change?
You may want to consider the possibility of food allergies and switch their food. Again, make this change gradually!
Milk - A Common Misconception
We have all seen the adorable photos and videos of tiny kittens lapping up every last drop of milk from their bowls. In fact, most mammals love a heaping of milk when offered.
However, the milk must be from the same species. Cats don't have the enzymes necessary to break down the milk sugars found in cow's milk. Feeding cats the milk of other animals puts them at a high risk of developing secondary GI issues like vomiting and diarrhea.
Eating Spoiled Food
Some cats (and many dogs) will eat just about anything they can get their paws on. If your cat gets into the trash and feasts on spoiled food, you'll likely find diarrhea and vomiting shortly thereafter.
Luckily, this acute diarrhea typically resolves fairly quickly and is easily preventable. Keeping spoiled food and other inedible items out of your cat's reach is an easy way to ensure that your kitty's digestive system stays healthy.
Bacterial or Viral Infection
Food aside, there are many reasons why your cat may be suffering from diarrhea, including bacterial and viral infections. People often refer to these infections as a simple stomach bug. In cats, though, the infections can potentially be far from simple.
Bacterial and viral infections of the GI tract can cause your cat to experience severe diarrhea and vomiting, both of which can lead to extreme weight loss and dehydration.
Acute diarrhea is often an indicator of bacterial overload in a cat's small intestine.
Although some bacterial infections may clear up on their own in about a week's time, you must keep a close eye on your cat and seek veterinary treatment if necessary. Other GI infections will resolve only with appropriate medication, such as antibiotics.
Furthermore, preventing the underlying cause of the bacterial or viral infection is essential. Again, remember that diarrhea is merely a symptom. The root of the problem must be treated appropriately to ensure the infection doesn't resurface.
Cat diarrhea is also a symptom of intestinal parasites, which enter a cat's body and intestinal tract through infected feces and contaminated water and food sources.
Although diarrhea due to intestinal parasites is typically acute and short-lasting, the damage can be quite severe if the diarrhea is inappropriately treated.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of an internal parasite infection, including vomiting, anemia, and diarrhea, can make cats more susceptible to other infections. Kittens are especially susceptible to intestinal parasites, making prevention paramount.
Here’s a troubling fact: some intestinal parasites, like Toxoplasma, can be passed from a cat to their owner.
A veterinarian diagnoses an intestinal parasite infection by looking for the parasites in a fecal sample. If your cat has intestinal parasites, proper medical attention is need to clear the infection.
Internal parasites include:
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
When you track most ailments back to the root of the condition, you will likely find one thing in common: inflammation. IBD is no different.
IBD includes conditions such as gastritis, pancreatitis, enteritis, and colitis. These conditions also affect people, with similar symptoms.
Chronic inflammation and diarrhea are much more serious than they may sound. The conditions included under the IBD "umbrella" have potential links to severe disease.
It is critical for pet parents to receive an accurate, timely diagnosis if their cat is experiencing chronic diarrhea.
Chronic diarrhea may subside initially but come back later down the road, with the potential to develop into something much more serious.
Kidney or Liver Disease
You probably already know the importance of the liver and kidneys. These detoxifying organs are essential for your cat’s health.
When there’s something wrong with the liver or kidneys, diarrhea may be one of the first symptoms that develop. However, your vet will not be able to diagnose liver or kidney dysfunction only on the presence of diarrhea.
Other tests will have to be administered to check liver and kidney function. With kidney or liver disease, a timely diagnosis is of utmost importance to slow down, or even stop, disease progression.
Knowing your cat isn't feeling well, whatever the reason, can be heart wrenching for a pet owner. Many times, a quick trip to the vet's office will leave you with a handful of medications to treat whatever is ailing your cat.
Unfortunately, conventional medications can have many potential side effects, including diarrhea.
If the medical condition for which the medication is prescribed is chronic, speak with your vet regarding alternative treatments that don't cause diarrhea. Again, chronic diarrhea comes with its own share of possible side effects that you'll want to avoid.
Addison's disease, which is characterized by deficient adrenal gland hormones, is rare in cats. When it does develop in cats, though, it can cause diarrhea.
The disease is treatable but only when properly diagnosed.
Chemicals and Toxins
Finally, ingesting chemicals or toxins can cause diarrhea in cats. This diarrhea can be either chronic or acute, depending on what type of poisoning the cat is experiencing.
Acute Diarrhea From Poisoning
For example, acute diarrhea will often occur when the cat ingests something poisonous, like a toxic houseplant. Cats can be very curious creatures. If you have a cat, you must know which plants are poisonous and avoid bringing them into the house.
Even plants that aren't specifically known to be poisonous can still do a substantial amount of damage to your cat's stomach.
If your feline friend enjoys getting into your plants, consider purchasing wheatgrass (cat grass), which is not only safe but also very nutritious.
Additionally, the chemicals in herbicides, pesticides, and many household cleaners can cause acute diarrhea and vomiting if consumed. Your cat doesn't need to ingest a lot of these chemically-based substances to become gravely ill.
If, for any reason, you think that your cat may have consumed these products, we urge you to call the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline at 1-888-426-4435. Follow their guidelines for what to do next.
A vet visit will likely be necessary to ensure your cat’s body is cleared of the poisonous substance.
Chronic Diarrhea from Poisoning
Your cat may have chronic diarrhea that is caused by an ongoing poisoning, such as lead toxicosis.
We cannot stress enough how important it is to identify the underlying cause of chronic diarrhea. In cases of lead poisoning, it's likely that the pet owner and other family members are also be affected, perhaps unknowingly.
You probably have a good idea of whether your cat has diarrhea. Cat owners can look for other symptoms if they are unsure.
Diarrhea symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Watery feces
- Abdominal pain
- Bathroom accidents
- Straining to defecate
- Increased fecal amount
- Blood or mucus in feces
Monitor your cat for these clinical signs. Be sure to write down any irregularities and report them to your vet.
The more information you provide your veterinarian, the faster and more accurately they will be able to diagnose why your cat is experiencing diarrhea.
When to Go to the Vet
There are a few things that pet owners should consider when deciding if it's time for a vet visit.
First, what is the general condition of your cat's health? Is your cat very young or old? Do they have any preexisting health conditions that will make them more susceptible to dehydration or other illnesses?
Next, is your cat experiencing any other worrisome symptoms, such as vomiting, lethargy, depression, or pain?
Additionally, how often are the bouts of diarrhea? Is the diarrhea extremely watery?
Finally, what does your cat's diarrhea look like? Is it the color of normal, healthy feces or is it black and tarry? Black and tarry feces often points to internal bleeding, which must be treated immediately. If your cat is experiencing black, tarry stools, seek veterinary medical care right away.
It’s okay if you don’t have the answer to all of these questions. If your cat is looking unwell overall and their feces look abnormal, take your cat to be examined by your veterinarian.
Diagnosing Cat Diarrhea
Your veterinarian will perform several tests to accurately diagnose the underlying cause of your cat's diarrhea. These tests include:
- Abdominal X-ray
- GI tract endoscopy
- Complete blood count
- Stool and rectal swab samples (to look for intestinal parasites)
Your vet will likely ask for you to bring in a sample of diarrhea so that they can examine that too.
Again, provide the vet with as much information as you can about any health changes in your cat. This information will help your veterinarian rule out certain illnesses and consider others more closely.
Diarrhea Treatment: Home Remedies for Diarrhea
Although it is paramount to diagnose and treat the diarrhea’s underlying cause, you'll also want to stop the diarrhea.
Pet parents have tried and found success with several methods for relieving cat diarrhea.
Switch Up the Food
Unlike vomiting, diarrhea doesn't require the cat owner to withhold food for an extended period of time. In fact, withholding food during this time can actually do more harm than good and can put your cat at risk of developing a fatal type of liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis.
Simplify your cat's food and make sure they are not receiving any treats or table scraps.
Additionally, consider whether your cat's diarrhea may be due to recent dietary changes. Your cat may have an intolerance to the new food source, so you may want to go back to their original food until the specific allergy is determined. Consult with your veterinarian on this.
Finally, it is entirely possible that your cat developed an allergy to the food that they have been eating for years.
If so, gradually switching to a new food may do the trick in relieving diarrhea.
Some cats who suffer from diarrhea benefit from a low-fiber diet. Look for brands that are labeled as highly digestible or ideal for cats with sensitive stomachs.
On the other hand, some cats who experience bouts of diarrhea may benefit from a fiber supplement, such as canned pumpkin.
Water and Electrolytes
Cats with diarrhea must stay hydrated to prevent dehydration. Make sure your cat has unlimited access to fresh water.
Cat owners may also want to consider switching from dry cat food to canned food to boost the moisture intake from the food.
Probiotic supplements are highly effective at maintaining a healthy amount of bacteria in a cat's gut. A healthy amount of bacteria in the intestinal tract is necessary for normal digestion.
Purchase a probiotic specifically formulated for cats from a reputable company.
Finally, many cat owners wonder if they can give their cat anti-diarrhea supplements that are formulated for humans. We strongly advise against doing this.
Some human anti-diarrhea medications can be fatal for a cat. Others, such as kaolin-pectin medications, are considered to be safe in some instances. However, some products (such as Kaopectate) that used to contain kaolin-pectin are now made with other ingredients that cat owners should avoid.
We firmly believe it's better to be safe than sorry. Never use a medication designed for people without the supervision of your veterinarian.
CBD Oil For Cats
Studies show that CBD oil, a digestive aid, supports a healthy gut. Additionally, CBD oil helps to reduce occasional loose stools caused by environmental stress or dietary changes. So, if you're dealing with cat diarrhea that stems from either of these causes, consider our CBD oil for cats!
Cat Diarrhea: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we know you want what's best for your beloved feline. We want to stress one last time that diarrhea itself is not a disease but rather a symptom of many diseases.Pinpointing exactly what is causing the diarrhea is imperative in treating it and preventing future recurrences.
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, she pursued a non-traditional career path as a veterinarian.
JoAnna completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, then became a medical writer. As founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company, JoAnna is passionate about educating pet parents about pet care and responsible pet ownership.
Although she does not currently have any pets to call her own, she loves living vicariously through other pet parents and watching Nat Geo!