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The essentials

  • Diarrhea is a symptom of an underlying issue — It’s not a condition in itself, so it requires medical attention to figure out what else might be going on.
  • It can lead to other complications if left untreated — Dehydration, discomfort, and general gastrointestinal irritation are among the most common.
  • Treatment depends on the cause — While some cat’s symptoms may resolve on their own, it’s always better to be safe by paying a visit to your pet’s veterinarian.

Loose stools in cats are often accompanied by a host of other problems, including vomiting or the presence of tapeworms in poop. Diarrhea isn’t a stand-alone medical condition — it always has a root cause, even if it’s something as simple as a greedy kitty sneaking too many snacks behind their pet parent’s back. 

Figuring out the underlying cause is the first step to resolving the issue and getting the litter box back to normal. Here’s our guide to possible reasons behind cat diarrhea and what to do about it. 

How serious is diarrhea in cats? 

Diarrhea is not a disease in itself — it’s a clinical sign of an underlying issue, and it’s usually the result of some degree of inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. If it’s not treated promptly and effectively, it can lead to other complications, like severe dehydration and GI tract irritation.

Just like humans, cats can be prone to an upset stomach now and then, and it isn’t always cause for concern. However, the only way to treat diarrhea is to figure out exactly what’s causing it.

Common causes of diarrhea in cats

Cats experience diarrhea for many of the same reasons that dogs and humans do. Acute causes of diarrhea tend to hold the highest risk of immediate danger, but chronic causes should be addressed by a veterinarian if the problem persists.  

Acute diarrhea  

Spoiled food, infections, and parasites can plague a cat’s gastrointestinal tract and top the list of ailments that cause sudden diarrhea. Some possible reasons require immediate veterinary care, such as if you suspect your pet may have ingested something toxic. Common culprits include: 

  • Infections. Viral and bacterial infections can result in diarrhea and an upset stomach. They also occur more frequently in younger cats and can sometimes be hard to spot.
  • Parasites . Parasites can irritate your cat’s small and large intestines and lead to all kinds of abnormal bowel movements. The kinds of intestinal parasites that cause these issues tend to be more common in younger kittens, but older cats aren’t exempt either.
  • Toxic foods or plants. Cats are capable of getting into toxic foods and substances they shouldn’t, like that plant on top of your kitchen counter or the dirty dishes in the sink.
  • Dietary changes. Even a slight change in your cat’s diet can cause diarrhea. When you swap out your cat’s food for another, make the transition slowly, and make sure to mix some of their old food in with the new. 
  • Food allergies. In addition to skin issues, certain types of food allergies can also manifest in the GI tract, resulting in vomiting or diarrhea. Frequent abnormal bowel movements may also lead to itching and strain around the rectum. 

Chronic diarrhea 

If diarrhea persists for longer than 24 hours, consulting your veterinarian is always the best course of action. However, what if your cat has intermittent diarrhea over a longer period of time? 

If your cat’s stools are softer than usual for 3 weeks or more, they have chronic diarrhea — regardless of whether they experience this problem consistently or not. Possible reasons for chronic diarrhea include: 

  • Stress. Just like with people, stress, anxiety, and even excitement can result in GI upset. If you’ve recently moved or made another significant life transition with your cat, such as adopting a new pet, your cat may have chronic diarrhea until they learn how to manage their stress. 
  • Illnesses and diseases. Inflammatory bowel disease, certain cancers, and disorders of the pancreas, liver, thyroid, and stomach can result in imbalances in your cat’s GI tract.
  • Parasites. While commonly an acute reason for diarrhea, it can take months to break the cycle if your cat has been afflicted by worms. Keeping up with flea prevention can speed up the process and prevent the problem from recurring since cats get worms by ingesting fleas.

What if your cat has diarrhea and is vomiting? 

Diarrhea coupled with vomiting is always a medical emergency. Your cat can dehydrate quickly in this instance, and it’s often a sign that they ingested something toxic or have an obstruction. 

Finding the cause of your cat’s diarrhea

Since there are so many possible causes of diarrhea in cats, it’s important to recall any information that might give you or the veterinarian a clue. Can you remember when the diarrhea started? What was the color and consistency? How many episodes has your cat experienced?

Your vet will review your cat’s medical history, perform a physical examination, and conduct laboratory tests such as blood work and X-rays to find the root cause. If possible, bring a stool sample to your veterinarian in case they can’t procure one from your pet.

Treating diarrhea in cats

If your cat is dehydrated, they may require intravenous fluids and a brief hospital stay. Ingesting toxic substances or foreign objects could also put your cat in the clinic overnight so the veterinary team can keep an eye on them—especially if the treatment requires surgery. 

  • For mild cases of diarrhea in adult cats, your vet may recommend adding a probiotic to their diet, trying a prescription food, or feeding plain chicken to settle their tummies.
  • If the exact cause is known, there may be a more straightforward treatment. For example, dewormer is usually recommended for intestinal parasites.

Cat diarrhea isn’t always dangerous, but it should always be addressed. Understanding the underlying cause leads to a quicker recovery, so be sure to pay attention to any other clues, such as vomiting, and when the problem started. 

While an episode can sometimes pass at home, it’s a good idea to take your cat to the vet if the problem persists for longer than a couple of days or if your cat is in an at-risk population due to age or health issues.

Frequently asked questions

Will cat diarrhea go away on its own?

Depending on the cause, mild cases of diarrhea may pass at home. However, you should take your cat to the vet within 24 hours if they’ve experienced multiple episodes, have been exposed to something toxic, or if they have health problems. Kittens, seniors, and pregnant cats are at greater risk of dehydration and should also be taken to the vet within a day for severe acute diarrhea or within a couple of days for intermittent runny stools. 

What does diarrhea look like in cats?

Normal cat poop should have a defined shape and leave little residue. Cat diarrhea feels softer than usual and might not have a shape at all. Liquid diarrhea is especially dangerous because it can quickly dehydrate your cat and deprive them of electrolytes. 

Can wet cat food cause diarrhea? 

Any sudden diet changes can cause diarrhea in cats. However, if your cat has been on a wet food diet for a long time, it’s more likely that they’re experiencing another problem, such as tapeworms from fleas. In general, wet food is good for cats because it hydrates them. Not all types of wet foods are equal. For example, a gravy-typed wet food is more likely to cause indigestion than pates or minces due to its high carb and fat content. There’s also a chance wet food doesn’t agree with your cat due to a food allergen. Consult your vet about the best type of food to feed your cat—and how much.

Is it normal for older cats to have diarrhea but otherwise seem fine?

Senior cats can have diarrhea for the same reasons younger cats do. The first step is to determine whether your cat is experiencing acute or chronic diarrhea. Acute diarrhea is usually an indicator of parasites, a bacterial infection, or a sign they’ve eaten something toxic. Chronic or intermittent diarrhea is more likely stress-related or could be a sign that something’s wrong with their gallbladder or liver. Either way, it’s a good idea to take your senior cat to the vet for a checkup exam. 

How long will my cat have diarrhea after changing food?

Gradually transitioning foods should reduce or eliminate diarrhea resulting from a change in diet. However, if there’s a correlation between the new food and your cat’s tummy woes, the problem should subside within a couple of days. If it doesn’t—or if it gets worse—stop giving them the new food and call your vet. 

What should I do if my cat has diarrhea?

A single occasional episode of diarrhea usually isn’t anything to worry about. However, you should take note of when it happens and call your vet if the problem persists. If you have a healthy adult cat, you might wait a couple of days to see if the issue goes away on its own. You should always call your vet within 24 hours though if you have a cat who’s at risk due to age or medical conditions, or if they show other signs of illness such as vomiting.