After practicing as a veterinarian for more than 20 years and being chief of staff at Animal House of Chicago, I have treated my fair share of senior cats suffering from diarrhea. These cases have ranged from something simple, like a cat eating too many cat treats, to something more complex, like a senior cat with an overactive thyroid condition. I don’t like to see any cat suffering from diarrhea, but it can be especially difficult for senior cats to handle.
When a senior cat (age 11 or older) suffers from diarrhea, it’s most likely a sign of another ailment, such as pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism or stress. Stress can be triggered by a recent move, new pets in the house, the loss of a pet and many other things. Think about anything that might have changed recently in your cat’s life. You and your veterinarian might have to play detective to determine the cause of your senior cat’s diarrhea.
Knowing the cause of the diarrhea is the first step to preventing any recurrence. Overactive thyroid, food allergies, kidney failure, cancer, poisoning (from houseplants, rat poison, human medications, parasites and infectious disease, among other things), can result in diarrhea. Obtain veterinary assistance if the cause isn’t apparent or it is an ongoing problem. A cat food with fewer allergens or treatments for a disease might reduce or eliminate the diarrhea.
Is It Diarrhea?
The signs of diarrhea can be quite diverse in any age cat. Frequent, urgent pooping of loose, watery stools are the classic signs that your senior cat has diarrhea. And a cat who has a bout of watery poop and then continues to strain is not suffering from constipation; it truly is diarrhea.
The following signs of illness often accompany diarrhea: fever, lethargy, malaise, loss of appetite and dehydration.
Check your indoor cat’s litter box if you suspect diarrhea. If your cat goes outside, you’ll have to observe him go, or look for his poop after. If your cat is producing loose, watery stools and it persists for more than a day, take a sample to your veterinarian.
Is It An Emergency?
Senior cats, along with kittens and small-sized adult cats, are at special risk of becoming dehydrated from even a single episode of diarrhea. Use this checklist to determine if you need to rush to your veterinarian or can wait a day.
- If your cat 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 cat seems fine but has recurrent episodes of diarrhea that do not seem to be resolving, call your veterinarian for a non-emergency appointment.
- If your cat 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 cat 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.
- 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.
What Care Can You Offer At Home?
Changing Food: If your senior cat has a bout of diarrhea but is acting normal and seems otherwise healthy, ask your veterinarian if you should withhold food (but not water) for 12 hours. After 12 hours of withholding food only, offer your cat a bland food that is fat-free. Some options are a fat-free prepared/canned cat food, cooked, ground turkey and canned 100 percent pumpkin. If canned pumpkin is not easily found, try fresh, cooked sweet potato.
Pets with diarrhea usually tolerate and digest pumpkin or sweet potato. Mix together equal parts turkey and pumpkin and feed it to your cat in small amounts, upping the frequency 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. A bland ground beef and rice diet is another option, but it will have a higher fat content, and the rice might ferment in your cat’s gut and make him gassy.
For some cases of diarrhea, it may be necessary to modify the diet permanently. Special foods may need to be given in order to avoid certain ingredients, add fiber to the diet and decrease the fat intake, or increase digestibility.
Natural Remedies: If you wish, consult your veterinarian to determine whether some natural remedies might work for your cat’s age and state of health. Slippery elm might ease diarrhea by reducing GI inflammation and providing a non-irritating source of fiber to bulk the stool and slow its transit through the GI tract. Peppermint or chamomile may help ease 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 all dosage recommendations.
Metamucil can also be used to help resolve diarrhea. Adding half a teaspoon of Metamucil into your cat’s food with each feeding, especially if he has soft poop, often normalizes the poop.
Water Is Important
A senior cat suffering diarrhea needs more water by whatever means possible. Diarrhea causes fluid loss, 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 cat’s water in a ratio of anywhere from 10 to 50 percent Pedialyte to water. It comes in several different flavors, but I find the original, clear, unflavored variety to be the most accepted by cats.
If your veterinarian determines your senior cat is dehydrated, supplemental fluids may be given either via intravenous or subcutaneous route. Drinking is no longer sufficient to make up for the dehydration because the liquids pass through the cat too rapidly to be properly absorbed.
To detect dehydration, gently pinch the normally loose skin at the back of the neck. The skin snaps right back down in a properly hydrated cat. If the pinched skin flattens slowly or remains tented, the cat is dehydrated. A dehydrated cat needs immediate veterinary care.
What Will Happen At The Vet’s?
Bring your senior cat to the veterinarian 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 senior cat for underlying illnesses, and most likely take a sample of poop to check for the presence of internal parasites, overgrowth of bacteria or other fecal abnormalities. Your vet 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 cat’s condition.
Parasites: If parasites are present, your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate de-wormer and/or other medication needed. 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 the environment.
Bacteria: If bacteria are causing the diarrhea, your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate antibiotic(s). 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.
A motility drug, one that slows down how quickly food moves through the GI tract, may or may not be used. It could do more harm than good if the cause of the diarrhea is from a toxin or bacterial infection. That’s why it’s important to have an accurate diagnosis before using such a drug.
Other Facts, Warnings And Advice About Senior Cat Diarrhea
Keep these in mind when treating diarrhea in your senior cat:
- Although it happens, cats are not prone to diarrhea.
- Cats who frequently have hairballs may also experience periodic bouts of diarrhea, but this may indicate another problem, like inflammatory bowel disease, that needs to be investigated.
- Cats 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 cat goes outside, check that your neighbors are not feeding him. Eating too much or eating food he is not used to can give a cat diarrhea. Poisonous plants are also a concern. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has a list of toxic and non-toxic plants for pets on its website.
- Avoid giving your cat dairy foods, no matter how much he may seem to like them! Almost all cats enjoy the taste of milk or yogurt, but some adult cats do not have a sufficient amount of lactase, the enzyme necessary for the digestion of dairy products. Undigested lactose moves to the large intestine, where it ferments — and can cause a cat to have gas or diarrhea.
- If you decide to switch your cat’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 anyone in your household also has diarrhea, take your cat to the vet and the person to the doctor right away. Some microscopic parasites (Giardia and toxoplasmosis) can cross species boundaries and 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 cat had? What does the poop look like? Is your cat uncomfortable?
- Know the signs of an emergency. Call you veterinarian immediately if your cat has diarrhea and:
- Blood in the diarrhea or the poop is black or tarry
- You suspect your cat may have eaten something toxic or poisonous
- A fever, is depressed or seems dehydrated, or if your cat’s gums are pale or yellow
- Appears to be in pain or discomfort
- Is also vomiting
By: Dr. Byron de la Navarre
Featured Image: nickpo/iStock/Thinkstock