By Jennifer Coates, DVM
What do you do when you find diarrhea in the litter box…or worse yet, when your cat doesn’t quite make it to the litter box? An immediate call to the veterinarian might be in order, but sometimes you might want to try some home treatment first. Here’s how to respond when your cat develops diarrhea.
When Does Cat Diarrhea Need Veterinary Attention?
Assess the severity of your cat’s diarrhea and his overall condition when trying to decide if he should see a veterinarian. If your cat has relatively mild diarrhea, is not vomiting, is eating and drinking, and doesn’t seem to feel too bad, it’s reasonable to try some home treatment. If, on the other hand, any of the following describes your cat’s condition, call your veterinarian immediately:
- Your cat is very young, very old, or has an underlying health problem that could make him vulnerable to the effects of dehydration.
- Your cat is vomiting, lethargic, depressed, in pain, or has any other worrisome symptoms.
- The diarrhea is profuse, watery, explosive, or very frequent.
- The diarrhea contains blood or is dark and tarry.
Options for Treating Cat Diarrhea
Once you’ve determined that your cat is a candidate for home treatment, you have to choose which type of treatment you want to try. Here are five options, with pointers on when to use each.
1. Change Your Cat’s Food
There is no need to withhold food from cats who have diarrhea. In fact, doing so can hinder the intestinal tract’s ability to heal itself and put cats at risk for a potentially fatal type of liver disease called hepatic lipidosis. It is best to simplify your cat’s diet, however. Eliminate any treats or table scraps and focus only on the core, nutritionally-complete cat food that you offer every day.
If you have recently changed your cat’s diet, go back to what you were previously feeding and see if your cat’s diarrhea resolves. One or more of the ingredients in the new food may not agree with your cat. Even if you are feeding the same brand and type of food as before but have just opened up a new batch, it might be worth buying a new bag or case from a different lot number to rule out the possibility of contamination.
More chronic adverse reactions to food can develop at any time—a cat may have been eating the same food for years or recently been switched to something new. Many cats with food intolerances or allergies will experience relief from their symptoms when they eat a hypoallergenic or low-antigen diet. The best low-antigen foods are only available through veterinarians, but over-the-counter options do work for some cats. Look for diets that are made from novel protein sources (e.g., duck or rabbit).
Some types of cat diarrhea get better with a low-fiber (highly digestible) diet. If your cat doesn’t have diarrhea all that frequently but when he does he produces a lot of stool, a low-fiber diet could be worth a try. Look for foods that are advertised as being highly digestible or good for cats with “sensitive stomachs.” These products should have a crude fiber level of around 3 percent listed on their guaranteed analyses.
To confuse matters, other types of cat diarrhea tend to respond to fiber supplementation—particularly conditions that make cats “go” frequently but produce only a small amount of feces at any one time. Unflavored psyllium (e.g., Metamucil) and canned pumpkin are two easily available fiber supplements. No hard and fast rules for how to dose psyllium or pumpkin in cats exist, but starting with 1-2 teaspoons of either mixed into your cat’s food over the course of the day is a reasonable place to start.
3. Encourage Water and Electrolyte Intake
Cats with diarrhea need to take in sufficient amounts of water to prevent dehydration. Keep your cat’s water bowls filled with fresh, clean water and consider adding an extra bowl that contains diluted chicken or beef broth. Another easy way to increase your cat’s water intake is to switch him from kibble to a canned diet. Temporarily, you can even mix an extra tablespoon or two of warm water into your cat’s canned food.
Healthy bacterial populations within a cat’s intestinal tract are necessary for normal digestion. Sometimes when they are disrupted, a cat’s diarrhea will continue even after the initial insult (stress, disease, antibiotic therapy, etc.) has resolved. Probiotic supplements can help return a cat’s intestinal bacterial population to normal. Pick a probiotic that is labeled for use in cats and made by a reputable company.
5. Anti-Diarrheal Medications
Most anti-diarrheal medications should not be used on cats without veterinary supervision. Some are downright dangerous, but kaolin-pectin medications can be used safely in cats. Dosing instructions of around 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds body weight every four to six hours are typical. Be aware that in the United States, some products that used to contain kaolin-pectin (e.g., Kaopectate) are now made with other ingredients.
Monitoring Your Cat’s Condition
If your cat’s diarrhea fails to resolve after a few days of home treatment or his overall condition gets worse rather than better, make an appointment with your veterinarian.