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feline health problems
Cat stands in litter box

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 be a side effect of a lot of different conditions — It’s important to take note of any changes or incidents leading up to your cat’s GI issue.
  • 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.

How serious is diarrhea in cats? 

By definition, diarrhea is known as the frequent evacuation of abnormal and watery stools. That said, 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.

👉 Because cats are so diligent about self-care and grooming, the early signs and severity of diarrhea can go unnoticed.

Just like humans, cats can be prone to an upset stomach every 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. If it goes unnoticed for too long, other symptoms may begin to develop. The worst thing any cat parent can do is fail to seek out medical care, especially if your pet’s diarrhea lasts for more than a day or two.

Common causes of diarrhea in cats

Cats experience diarrhea for many of the same reasons dogs do. And because so many conditions can cause it, it’s important to determine what’s going on and get it treated ASAP. The most common underlying problems 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. If you suspect an infection is at play, talk to your vet as soon as you can.
  • 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 are not exempt either.
  • Toxic foods or plants. Cats are usually more careful about what they ingest than dogs are, but cats are also more 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. You should also avoid giving your pets any treats or human food for at least a week when making changes to their diet.
  • 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.
  • Stress. Just like with people, stress, anxiety, and even excitement can result in GI upset (especially lower bowel irritation or colitis).
  • 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.

Determining the cause of your cat’s GI issues

The first thing you can do at home is take note of any food or treats your cat has eaten in the past several days. It’s also always a good idea to consult your vet in situations like this. They’ll likely ask about any recent changes to your cat’s environment or diet. They can also perform certain tests and examinations, like a physical exam, bloodwork, X-rays, ultrasounds, or stool and rectal exams, to get to the root cause of your cat’s diarrhea.

Be prepared that your vet may ask you a series of questions while conducting their exam, including many of the following:

  • Have there been any changes in your cat’s normal routine?
  • How long has the diarrhea been happening, and how many times per day?
  • What is the color, consistency, and smell like?
  • Is your cat showing any other symptoms, like vomiting, appetite changes, lethargy, or weight loss?

What to do if your cat has diarrhea

There are many first aid best practices for caring for a cat with diarrhea. In addition, there are also several steps you can take to help your vet make a diagnosis. Below are some helpful tips to consider:

Take inventory — Take inventory of any changes in your cat’s diet or routine beginning a few days prior to when the diarrhea first began. Make sure to write down when you first noticed the diarrhea, and how frequently it seems to be happening.

Take note of the color and consistency — Are your cat’s stools still semiformed, unformed, or liquid? What’s the dominant color? Are there traces of blood? Smell can be another important factor to mention to your vet.

Collect a sample — It’ll be really helpful to bring in a stool sample to your vet, especially if your cat is also presenting with other symptoms.

👉  Bringing a fresh stool sample to a vet is one of the best and most efficient ways to expedite treatment; if you’re able, taking a photo for point of reference can also be very helpful. 

Check for dehydration — Diarrhea and vomiting can quickly lead to fluid loss and electrolyte imbalances, particularly in very young and senior cats.

Isolate your pet — This is extremely important if you think your cat has any kind of infection or intestinal parasite.

Know when to head to the vet — If the diarrhea becomes more frequent or your cat begins experiencing symptoms like vomiting, lethargy, or lack of appetite, take them to the vet.

👉  VCA also has a great checklist to consult when your cat has diarrhea. 

Treating diarrhea in cats

Again, the most important thing to do when treating diarrhea is to figure out what’s causing it. A vet visit will always be your best bet, even in milder cases. If your pet’s diarrhea is being caused by an infection, they may be prescribed medicine. For intestinal parasites, a dewormer is usually recommended. If your cat has a chronic case of GI upset related to a food allergy, they’ll likely be put on a food trial, which can determine what your cat is allergic to and allow you to eliminate it from their diet.

Preventing diarrhea in your cat 

Some cases are preventable while others aren’t, but it’s always best to keep a close eye on your cat’s bathroom behaviors. It’s also important to avoid giving your cat human food. Even seemingly innocuous foods like garlic and onion can be extremely toxic to pets, so reading up on the potentially harmful things a cat can ingest is a great method of prevention. Some cats may also benefit from a probiotic.

👉 Pro tip: ASPCA has an excellent list of foods to keep away from pets.

Frequently asked questions

Why does my indoor cat have diarrhea?

There’s a wide range of potential causes. The most common are accidentally eating something that irritated their stomach, dietary changes, an infection or parasite, allergies, and stress.

When should I be concerned about my cat’s diarrhea?

If the diarrhea has become persistent or gets worse, you should head to the vet. You should also be sure to watch out for additional symptoms, like vomiting, loss of appetite, and lethargy, all of which can be an indication that something serious is wrong.

Will cat diarrhea go away on its own?

On occasion, very mild cases will go away on their own, like if your cat accidentally ingested something that upset their stomach. That said, it’s always better to consult your veterinarian just in case.

What foods can cause diarrhea in cats?

A good rule of thumb is to always avoid giving your cats human food. Or, otherwise, be sure to properly vet the food you’re attempting to feed your cat to make sure it’s safe.

Can dewormers cause diarrhea in cats?

Although rare, some cats can experience vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or increased salivation from dewormers. Symptoms usually show up within 24 hours of taking the medication but should resolve on their own.