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Kitten Diarrhea - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

kitten diarrheaDiarrhea is the passage of watery stools and is a very common complaint in kittens. It is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of an underlying problem.  It may be the only symptom or it may accompany other symptoms such as lethargy, vomiting, and loss of appetite.

Diarrhea in kittens is very common. Their gastrointestinal system isn't fully developed and they are more sensitive to dietary changes, as their immune systems aren't yet fully developed they are also at greater risk of catching infections or diarrhea-causing parasites such as coccidiosis.

Diarrhea is further categorised into acute or chronic diarrhea. Acute is the sudden onset of frequent watery stools, chronic is over a longer period of time with intermittent diarrhea.

What are the causes of diarrhea in kittens?

There are many causes of diarrhea, some of which can be life-threatening. Kittens can dehydrate much faster than an adult cat, so diarrhea must be taken seriously. The main causes of diarrhea in kittens include:

  • Diet: There are several diet-related possibilities. A sudden switch in your kitten's food can cause diarrhea. Overfeeding, food allergies and food intolerances, dietary indiscretion (eating something he shouldn't have such as cat litter) may also cause diarrhea. Kittens are very sensitive to dietary changes, so when you bring your new kitten home, find out from the breeder, or the previous owner what the kitten has been eating so far. He should continue to have the same diet, but if you would like to change to a different type or brand of food, you can do so, but introduce it gradually, over a period of days. On the first day 90% old food, 10% new food, second day 80% old food, 20% new food etc. This will slowly accustom your kitten to the new food without upsetting his tummy.
  • Infection: Bacterial (Salmonella, Campylobacter), viral (FIV, FeLV, Panleukopenia, Rotavirus), protozoal (Giardia, Cryptosporidium).
  • Parasitic worms (hookworm, tapeworm, roundworm etc). Kittens acquire parasitic worms via their mother. All kittens should be wormed every two weeks of age, and every two weeks thereafter, until they reach 12 weeks of age, and then every 3-6 months, depending on the medication you are using.
  • Cows milk - Many new kitten owners think that kittens should drink milk. This is a common cause of diarrhea in kittens as they are unable to digest the lactose in the milk. If you want to give your kitten milk, purchase the "cat milk" available from most supermarkets.
  • Poisoning - Kittens can be especially indiscriminate when it comes to what they put in their mouth. Antifreeze, plants, medications etc.
  • Intestinal blockage (bones, kitty litter, wool etc), this will often also be accompanied by vomiting.
  • Stress - Moving to a new house can be stressful to a kitten.
  • Fading kitten syndrome - This occurs in very young kittens in the first two weeks of their life who appear otherwise healthy and suddenly become very sick and die. The cause may be a congenital defect, infection, maternal neglect, blood type incompatibility, environmental conditions (too hot, too cold). There are many possible causes. If you have an extremely young kitten who suddenly becomes unwell, urgent and aggressive medical treatment will be required to save it.
  • Colitis (inflammation of the colon) due to infection, dietary indiscretion, parasites etc.
  • Gastritis (inflammation of the lining of the stomach) due to infection, dietary indiscretion, parasites etc.
  • Heat stroke - Kittens are not as efficient at maintaining their body temperature as adult cats, and can quickly become overheated as a result.

How is diarrhea in kittens diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your kitten and obtain a medical history from you. Questions he may ask may include foods your kitten has recently eaten, accompanying symptoms your kitten may have, the age of your kitten, has he been exposed to other cats who are sick, has he been vaccinated, where you obtained him, has he been treated for parasites such as intestinal worms?

In some cases, the cause may be apparent, if not, your veterinarian may wish to perform the following tests to determine a cause:

  • Fecal examination to look for the presence of parasites such as worms or protozoal infection.

  • Baseline tests including complete blood count and biochemical profile to check for an underlying infection, dehydration and anemia.

  • Urinalysis to check the kidney function and to determine how dehydrated your kitten is.

  • X-Rays to look for intestinal blockages and evaluate the organs such as liver and kidneys.

  • Additional tests may be necessary depending on your veterinarian's index of suspicion.

How is kitten diarrhea treated?

Kittens who have had diarrhea for longer than 24 hours need to see a veterinarian. You should see your veterinarian without delay if the diarrhea is accompanied by the following symptoms:

 If possible, bring a stool sample to the vet with you, this can help to diagnose the problem.

Treatment depends on the cause and may include:

  • If the diarrhea is acute, and he seems otherwise fit and well, your veterinarian may choose to withhold food for a day or so (for kittens that are over 8 weeks of age). Water is still to be provided. After the fasting period, food may be re-introduced but this will usually need to be bland and low fat for a few more days.

  • Treat parasites such as worms with anti-worm medication. Worms are an extremely common cause of diarrhea in kittens.

  • Treat protozoal infections such as giardia or cryptosporidium with the appropriate anti-parasitic medication.

  • Antibiotics for bacterial infections.

  • Most viral infections can only be treated by offering supportive care while your kitten's own immune system fights off the infection. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics in this case which won't kill the virus but may hold off secondary bacterial infections which can sometimes develop.

  • Anti-diarrhea medications.

  • Surgery may be required if the cause is an obstruction.

  • Supportive care may be necessary while your kitten recovers from diarrhea. Treat dehydration and electrolyte imbalance if necessary. This may involve a short stay at the vet on an IV drip or he may choose to give your kitten some fluids subcutaneously (via injection under the skin). Nutritional support if your kitten isn't eating.

Aftercare:

Administer all medications as prescribed by your veterinarian.

Kittens do have very sensitive tummies, it is recommended that dietary changes be implemented slowly over a period of days and avoid giving your kitten cow's milk.

Keep all medications, poisons and small objects which can potentially be swallowed away from kittens. It really is no different to having a toddler, they can and will get into anything if given the chance.

Recommended reading:

Feeding a kitten   Kitten care   Kitten vomiting