Growing up, we never had fewer than eight cats, so I am very familiar with all their behaviors, as well as their physical ailments. One of those ailments is diarrhea. Ugh. Even kittens can’t make diarrhea cute. Unfortunately, kittens (and cats) can develop diarrhea for no apparent reason, and it may take detective work by both you and your veterinarian to determine the cause. As a veterinarian for more than 20 years, and chief of staff at Animal House of Chicago, I have treated many cases of diarrhea in kittens, cats in age from birth through 6 months. In my experience, the most common causes are dietary indiscretion (eating something that caused upset), a sudden change in diet and parasites.
Signs Of Diarrhea
You might think you know the signs of diarrhea, but they can be quite diverse in any age cat. Frequent, urgent pooping of loose, watery stools are the classic signs that your cat has diarrhea. However, straining to poop can also be a sign, though it might be misinterpreted as constipation. A kitten who has a bout of explosive, watery stool and stays hunched over as if he still needs to go while nothing comes out is actually suffering from diarrhea, not constipation. Other signs include:
- Loss of appetite
It is easy to determine if an indoor kitten is having diarrhea — just check the cat litter box. If you allow your kitten to go outside, diagnosis is more difficult — you have to observe your kitten as he goes, or find his poop after the fact. If you do find loose, watery stool either indoors or outdoors and it persists, take a sample to your veterinarian for analysis.
Wait And See Or Rush To The Vet?
Kittens, adult cats that are small in size, and geriatric cats are at special risk of becoming dehydrated from even a single episode of diarrhea.
If your kitten seems OK after a single bout of diarrhea, it may be safe to simply monitor him. However, if you notice any lethargy, fever or change in behavior, call your veterinarian for an appointment as soon as possible. If your kitten seems fine but has recurrent episodes of diarrhea that do not seem to be resolving, it is also time to call your veterinarian for a non-emergency appointment.
If your kitten is passing blood in his stools or if you notice any weakness or other signs of debilitation along with the diarrhea, contact your veterinarian immediately and have your kitten seen as soon as possible. Red blood in the poop usually indicates a problem with the lower intestine/colon or rectum. Black blood in the poop usually indicates a more serious problem higher up in the digestive tract. Your veterinarian, based on a complete physical and perhaps some lab evaluations, may give you indicated medication(s) and a prescription diet.
If there is no blood, call your vet and ask about over-the-counter medications or options for at-home treatments for your cat. Because there are so many causes of diarrhea, the treatment will vary.
Try to determine how the diarrhea started so you can prevent a recurrence. Overactive thyroid, food allergies, kidney failure, cancer, poisoning (from houseplants, rat poison, human medications, etc.), parasites and infectious diseases, among other things, can result in diarrhea. Obtain veterinary assistance if the cause isn’t apparent or it is an ongoing problem. A food with fewer allergens or treatments for a disease might reduce or eliminate the diarrhea.
At-Home Treatment Options
If your kitten is otherwise healthy and his behavior is normal, ask your veterinarian if you should withhold food (food only, not water) for 12 hours. After 12 hours of withholding cat food only, offer your kitten a bland food that is fat-free. Some options are a fat-free prepared/canned kitten food, or cooked ground turkey and canned 100 percent pumpkin. If canned pumpkin is not easily found, try fresh, cooked sweet potato.
It has been found that pumpkin or sweet potato is usually well tolerated and digestible even in pets suffering with diarrhea. Mix together equal parts turkey and pumpkin and give your cat smaller portions frequently throughout the day until the diarrhea resolves. If the diarrhea does not resolve in the first two to three days on a bland diet, consult your veterinarian if you haven’t already.
An alternative to this is a bland diet of ground beef and rice. While this is somewhat fat-free, even the leanest ground beef is higher in fat than turkey. Rice is indeed bland and contains fiber, but it is a complex carbohydrate that tends to ferment in your cat’s intestine. This can make your kitten gassy, and you might see relatively undigested rice in your kitten’s poop.
For some cases of diarrhea, it may be necessary to modify the diet permanently. You may need to give your cat special cat food in order to avoid certain ingredients, plus add fiber, decrease fat intake and increase digestibility.
Slippery elm is a neutral fiber source that may work well to ease episodes of diarrhea. It acts like a natural anti-diarrheal by reducing GI inflammation; it can also act as a non-irritating source of fiber to bulk the stool and slow its transit through the GI tract. Consult your veterinarian for dosage recommendations.
Many pet owners have success using other herbal remedies such as peppermint or chamomile. These may be especially helpful for the cramps and other unpleasant GI symptoms that come with diarrhea. Homeopathic podophyllum is also a good remedy to keep on hand to help reduce some of the side effects associated with intermittent diarrhea. Consult your veterinarian for dosage recommendations.
Metamucil can also be used to help resolve diarrhea. Adding half a teaspoon of Metamucil into your kitten’s food, especially if he has soft poop, often firms up the stool.
A kitten with diarrhea needs more water by whatever means possible. Diarrhea causes the kitten to lose fluids, and the electrolytes in those fluids are essential to help control important physiologic functions. Pedialyte is an over-the-counter electrolyte beverage designed for infants and children and can be added to your kitten’s water. Begin by offering water that includes 10 percent Pedialyte. If your kitten likes it, increase the amount of Pedialyte to 50 percent. Pedialyte comes in several different flavors, but I find the original, clear, unflavored variety to be the most accepted by cats.
Veterinary Diagnosis And Treatment
Bring your kitten to the vet if his diarrhea continues for more than a day, or if you observe lethargy, vomiting, fever, dark-colored or bloody stools, straining to defecate, decreased appetite or unexplained weight loss.
Your veterinarian will examine your kitten for underlying illnesses and most likely take a stool sample to check for the presence of internal parasites, overgrowth of bacteria or other fecal abnormalities. Your veterinarian may also conduct blood work to identify other possible causes of the diarrhea.
Other diagnostic tests that might be recommended include X-rays, ultrasound, cultures, endoscopy and biopsy. The diagnostic tests performed and treatment recommended will depend on how the long the diarrhea has been present and the severity of your kitten’s condition.
If your kitten is dehydrated, supplemental fluids may be given either via intravenous or subcutaneous route. Giving fluids orally may not be sufficient to make up for the dehydration because the liquids pass through the kitten too rapidly to be properly absorbed. To detect dehydration, gently pinch the normally loose skin at the back of the neck. When a kitten is normally hydrated, the skin snaps right back down. If the pinched skin flattens slowly or remains tented, the kitten is dehydrated. If the kitten appears to be dehydrated, take him to your veterinarian right away.
If parasites are present, your veterinarian should prescribe the appropriate de-wormer and/or other medication. Not all de-wormers kill every kind of parasite, so the exact type of parasite(s) must be identified and the appropriate anti-parasitic medication(s) selected. In many cases, de-worming must be repeated one or more times over a few weeks or more. Keep things clean to remove the worm eggs from your home. The fecal flotation test done by your veterinarian looks for worm eggs, and if no eggs are being produced, the test could be negative even though worms could be present. For this reason, in some cases, even if the fecal flotation test is negative, an anti-parasitic medication may still be prescribed.
Your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate antibiotic(s) if bacteria are causing the diarrhea. Antibiotics may also be given if the intestine has been damaged (e.g., blood in the poop may indicate an injured intestine) and there is a chance that the injury could allow bacteria from the intestine into the bloodstream, possibly causing severe disease. In some cases of diarrhea, medications may be given to slow down the rate at which the intestine moves ingested material through. These drugs should not be given if the kitten could have ingested a toxin or may have a bacterial infection, so it is always important to have an accurate diagnosis before using these drugs.
9 Things To Know About Kitten Diarrhea
- Although it happens, kittens are not prone to diarrhea.
- Kittens who have frequent hairballs may also experience periodic bouts of diarrhea, but this may indicate another problem, like inflammatory bowel disease, that needs to be investigated.
- Kittens who spend a lot of time outdoors may be at an increased risk for internal parasites or ingestion of inappropriate food, which could lead to diarrhea. If your kitten goes outside, check that your neighbors are not feeding him. Eating too much or eating food he is not used to can give a kitten diarrhea. Check your yard and your neighbors’ yards for poisonous plants that your kitten may have nibbled. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has a list of toxic and non-toxic plants on its website.
- If you decide to switch your kitten’s food, introduce it gradually, mixing it with the old brand in increasing amounts over a period of days to ensure an easier transition for your pet’s GI tract.
- Over-the-counter remedies like Pepto Bismol and Kaopectate can be dangerous to cats due to salicylate toxicity. These should not be used! Always check with your veterinarian on the correct medication and dosage for the weight and age of your cat.
- If any humans in your household also have diarrhea, take your kitten to the vet and the family member to the doctor right away. There are some microscopic parasites (Giardia and toxoplasmosis) that can cross species boundaries, which can be difficult to eliminate. These parasites have the potential to become life-threatening to small children, elderly adults and those with compromised health.
- Remember that your cat cannot control the diarrhea. So please do not scold your cat for the accidents. He cannot help it, and adding stress may only make his diarrhea worse.
- Consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will ask you a series of questions to determine the severity of the diarrhea. When did the diarrhea start? How many bowel movements has your kitten had? What does the poop look like? Is your kitten uncomfortable?
- Know the signs of an emergency. Call you veterinarian immediately if your kitten has diarrhea and:
- Blood in the diarrhea or the poop is black or tarry
- You suspect your kitten may have eaten something toxic or poisonous
- A fever, is depressed or seems dehydrated, or if your cat’s gums are pale or yellow
- Has not received all his vaccinations
- Appears to be in pain or discomfort
- Is also vomiting
By: Dr. Byron de la Navarre
Feature image: cynoclub/iStock/Thinkstock