Though less common than most people assume, urinary tract infections(UTIs) can affect cats. As is the case in humans, female cats are more likely to suffer from UTIs than males due to the length of their urethra. UTIs, as well as other urinary issues, cause a variety of symptoms that cat owners should learn to recognize in order to get their cat the help it needs and prevent complications.
What Are Urinary Tract Infections in Cats?
Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the urethra and bladder and multiply. This presence of bacteria may result in an infection if the body's defenses don't clear it quickly. Since the urine and bladder are normally sterile, the presence of bacteria there is abnormal. There are other urinary issues that are much more common in cats that cause similar clinical signs, so it is important to always have your cat checked out by their veterinarian if urinary issues are seen.
Cats that have urinary tract infections are likely to be uncomfortable when they urinate. This discomfort or pain may sometimes cause them to cry or vocalize when they urinate. Straining to urinate and urinating small amounts frequently is also commonly seen.
A cat with a urinary tract infection may also lick at its genitals in an attempt to ease the discomfort and will also often urinate outside of the box. This may occur on the floor right beside the litter box or in other places such as the bathtub or carpet.
Some cats with urinary tract infections will also have blood in their urine and this may be seen in the litter box or on the floor, but can be hard to see in clumping litter.
Causes of UTIs in Cats
UTIs are caused by bacteria in the bladder. Typically, bacteria enter the bladder through the cat's urethra, which is the path urine takes from the bladder to exit the body. There is most often something amiss that prohibits the body’s natural defenses from being able to avoid and eliminate the bacteria. This may be stress, another illness, certain medications, abnormalities in their urinary tract anatomy or function, or an immune system disorder.
Once in the bladder, if the bacteria evade the cat’s natural defenses, they grow and reproduce to create more bacteria. This overgrowth of bacteria and the toxins they release affect the bladder wall, as well as the urethra, and results in pain and inflammation.
Diagnosing UTIs in Cats
If a cat owner is observing signs of abnormal urination in their cat they should schedule a visit with their cat's veterinarian. A urine sample will need to be collected either by the owner at home with the use of special, non-absorbent litter, or by the veterinarian.
The veterinarian may temporarily keep the cat in the animal hospital until it urinates on its own in some non-absorbable litter or the urine may be obtained by cystocentesis. Cystocentesis is a procedure that involves collecting a sterile urine sample directly from the bladder via a needle. This procedure is the preferred method for urine collection if a UTI is suspected because it is the only way to obtain a sample without contamination. However, the procedure does come with some risk and the decision should be made with the guidance of your veterinarian.
Alternatively, it may be possible to obtain a sample by allowing the cat to urinate in a clean litter box filled with non-absorbent granules.
Once the urine is obtained a urinalysis will be performed. A complete urinalysis checks the urine for bacteria, crystals, blood, abnormal pH levels, abnormal specific gravity, glucose, white blood cells, and other things to aid the veterinarian in making a diagnosis. If bacteria and white blood cells are present in the urine, a urinary tract infection is diagnosed. It is recommended to then culture the urine so the causative bacteria may be identified and tested for its susceptibility to certain antibiotics. This will guide the treatment of the infection for your cat.
Treating UTIs in Cats
Antibiotics will be prescribed to kill the bacteria in the bladder and symptomatic treatment may also be necessary to ease a cat's discomfort. This usually includes pain medications. Probiotics may also be recommended to restore a healthy population of bacteria in the gut after the antibiotics since beneficial bacteria may also be wiped out by a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
The choice of antibiotic should be guided by the culture and sensitivity results, however, ease of administration, such as pills vs. liquid vs. injection, may also play a role in addition to any underlying conditions your cat may have.
How to Prevent UTIs in Cats
It is important to note that UTIs are less common in cats. It is often more likely that another urinary issue is affecting your cat. UTIs most often occur when something else is affecting the cat’s natural defenses such as an autoimmune issue, bladder stones, or diabetes mellitus. These conditions will need to be addressed along with the UTI.
To encourage urinary tract health, all cats should be offered fresh water at all times and encouraged to drink. Canned or moist food is ideal for cats because it has more water content, and for cats with recurrent urinary issues, it may be recommended to add additional water to their canned food as well.
Other Types of Urinary Tract Problems in Cats
If your cat is straining, crying when urinating, urinating outside of the box, or having blood in its urine, it may very well have a condition that is not a UTI. Some of the more common causes include:
Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS) - Also referred to as sterile cystitis, this is a sterile inflammation of the bladder that is incredibly common in cats. The exact cause for this inflammation is unknown but is likely multi-factorial including stress, genetics, diet, anatomy, and lifestyle. This is a disorder that cannot be cured but requires management in the form of stress reduction, special diets, medications, and sometimes surgery.
Urinary Tract Blockage- More often a problem in male cats, the urethra may become blocked with grit and other debris and the cat will be unable to urinate. This is an emergency! Steps must immediately be taken to unblock the cat to avoid kidney failure and death. Any cat with urinary tract symptoms that is not urinating for more than eight hours or only producing small drops of urine should be seen by a vet right away.
Bladder Stones - Bladder stones may also cause signs that look like a UTI. The cat may strain, urinate frequently, have pain when urinating, and have blood in its urine. Testing with your veterinarian, including a urinalysis and x-rays, is necessary for diagnosis.
Feline lower urinary tract disease. American Veterinary Medical Association.
Odunayo A, Ng ZY, Holford AL. Probable vasovagal reaction following cystocentesis in two cats. JFMS Open Rep. 2015, doi:10.1177/2055116915585021
Urinary Obstruction in Male Cats. American College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Urinary Stones in Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual.