Diarrhea in Kittens: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Grey tabby kitten in a litter box with white background
 GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Kittens, just like other pets, can develop gastrointestinal upset from time to time, which may result in loose stools. But sometimes diarrhea is an indication of a more serious underlying problem, and your kitten is depending on you to help it.

Causes of Diarrhea

There are many reasons why a kitten may develop diarrhea and some are more common than others. But regardless of the reason for the diarrhea, it should never be ignored if it lasts more than a couple of days.

  • Dietary Changes - Any change in food, whether it is the main diet, treats, a medication, nutritional supplement, or edible toy, can cause a kitten to get diarrhea, but it is usually only temporary. Once its body adjusts to the new item, the diarrhea typically stops after a couple of days of eating the new food item. If you are regularly providing different foods, treats, etc. then diarrhea may also occur regularly, especially in a kitten with a sensitive gastrointestinal tract. If your kitten has eaten something they aren't supposed to eat, such as your dog's food or people food that fell on the floor, this is still a change in its diet and diarrhea could result.
  • Medication Side Effects - While sometimes necessary, pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and pain medications often have side effects. Diarrhea is unfortunately a common side effect of several medications and your veterinarian should be contacted if you think your pet is experiencing loose stools or any other potential adverse effect of a drug.
  • Intestinal Parasites - More often referred to as worms, intestinal parasites make their homes in the intestinal tracts of kittens and other animals. Sometimes they and/or their eggs will exit the body in feces, but other times special tests will need to be performed by your veterinarian to diagnose and effectively treat an infestation. Intestinal parasites often cause diarrhea in kittens since they disrupt and irritate the intestinal lining.
  • Environmental Stress - Just like people, kittens can get stressed in life. When a kitten is brought into a new home or is frightened by something in its environment like a dog or child, it may develop diarrhea as part of its body's "fight or flight" response.
  • Toxicities - Kittens are curious and tend to eat and chew things they shouldn't. Sometimes these items that kittens consume are unfortunately toxic and can cause a variety of symptoms including diarrhea. Chemical exposure, even some meant to kill fleas and ticks, can be toxic to kittens and also cause diarrhea.
  • Digestive Disorders and Disease - A variety of diseases and problems with the digestive tract, including absorption problems, low vitamin levels, and more, can cause diarrhea.

Diarrhea Symptoms

Diarrhea by definition is frequent and liquid stool. Diarrhea will cause a kitten to become severely dehydrated due to the loss of fluid in its stool and therefore cause them to be weak. Dehydration, if left untreated, can cause death.

Some kittens may not make it to the litter box and have accidents when they have diarrhea. They may also get messy paws if they step in the diarrhea or have diarrhea stuck on their tails and rear ends.

Diarrhea Prevention

There are some simple ways you can help prevent diarrhea in a kitten.

  • Make Gradual Food Changes - Make sure any food changes that are made are done slowly, by mixing the old and new food together. Slowly add more of the new food over the course of a week until your kitten adjusts to the change.
  • Use Probiotics - When a kitten is on antibiotics, the medication is not only killing off the bad bacteria but also potentially destroying some of the good bacteria in its system. Ask your veterinarian about giving your kitten probiotics if it needs to be on medications for an illness to help support its intestinal tract.
  • Get Routine Fecal Screens - Kittens and adult cats can get intestinal parasites if they are exposed to them from another animal or outside. By getting your kitten's poop checked for worms at least once a year, you can help prevent diarrhea from an infestation.
  • Use Parasite Prevention - Parasites like fleas, worms, and ticks not only pass diseases to kittens but they can also stress kittens out because of the discomfort they cause. Many monthly preventatives will help control or prevent these parasites from stressing out your kitten and therefore help to prevent diarrhea.
  • Use Pheromones - Environmental stress may be unavoidable sometimes but you can help keep your kitten calm by utilizing pheromones in its home. These will help calm your kitten and make it less likely for it to develop diarrhea from the stress of the household changes.

Diarrhea Treatment

Depending on the cause of the diarrhea, you may need to seek veterinary attention to have it treated. If dietary changes occurred, the diarrhea may resolve without medications once the kitten adjusts to the new food or it is discontinued. But if parasites or an illness causes the diarrhea, or if it lasts for more than two to three days, you need to have your veterinarian see your kitten. Anti-diarrhea medications that are safe for kittens may be prescribed or your vet may recommend increasing the fiber in your kitten's diet. Sometimes fluid administration through an IV or under the skin need to be given if your kitten has become dehydrated or is at risk for dehydration.