Cat urinary tract infections: what they are and how to treat them

When your cat stops using the litter box for urination, it’s not only a behavioral concern but could also be a sign of an underlying health issue. It’s imperative to understand the potential symptoms and causes, as this can help you take swift action to assist your feline friend. If you notice changes in your cat’s peeing habits, such as straining with no urine produced, frequent attempts to urinate, or signs of discomfort, these could be indicators that something is amiss.

Urinary problems in cats can have various triggers, ranging from urinary tract infections (UTIs) to more serious blockages such as urinary stones or crystals. Behavioral factors, like stress or changes in the environment, might also cause your cat to avoid the litter box. Some of these conditions are medical emergencies that require immediate veterinary attention to prevent life-threatening complications.

Understanding what steps to take can be key to providing your cat with relief and preventing future issues. Regular litter box cleaning, ensuring access to fresh water to promote hydration, and observing for any signs of distress are all part of the proactive care you can provide. However, if your cat is displaying symptoms of urinary distress, consult your veterinarian promptly to determine the cause and the appropriate treatment.

Recognizing the Symptoms

When your cat is having trouble urinating, it’s crucial to quickly identify the signs. Your attention to their symptoms can lead to prompt treatment and may prevent further complications.

Physical Indicators

  • Straining to pee often signifies an issue; your cat may visit the litter box frequently but only pass small amounts of urine.
  • Presence of blood in the urine is a red flag and requires immediate veterinary care.
  • Look for crystals or small, gritty stones in the litter box, which can indicate a urinary blockage.

Behavioral Changes

  • An increase in your cat’s trips to the litter box shows they are uncomfortable and likely experiencing frequent urges to urinate.
  • If your cat appears distressed or vocalizes when attempting to pee, it’s a sign they are in pain.
  • You may also notice signs of lethargy, decreased appetite, or vomiting, which are symptoms that warrant swift action.

Observe your cat closely and consult your veterinarian if these symptoms persist or worsen.

Common Causes of Feline Urinary Issues

When your cat is experiencing difficulty peeing, it’s often a sign of underlying urinary issues. Identifying the cause is crucial for effective treatment and your cat’s well-being.

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Urinary Tract Infections in cats are less common than in humans, but when they occur, they’re typically a result of a bacterial infection within the lower urinary tract. If your cat has a UTI, it might frequently attempt to urinate with little success and seem uncomfortable while doing so.

Crystals and Stones

Crystals and urinary stones, also known as uroliths, can form in your cat’s bladder or urethra. The most common types are struvite and calcium oxalate. Their formation can lead to discomfort, blood in the urine, and potential blockage, requiring immediate veterinary care.

Urethral Blockage

This life-threatening condition, more prominent in male cats, involves an obstruction of the urethra, usually by crystals, stones, or mucus. Symptoms include straining to urinate, a bloated abdomen, and lethargy. Immediate veterinary intervention is necessary to relieve the urinary obstruction, often requiring a catheter.

Underlying Health Conditions

Certain chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and even cancer can contribute to urinary problems. Additionally, Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC), a form of inflammation without a clear cause, can result in symptoms of FLUTD (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease), affecting your cat’s capacity to urinate normally.

Diagnosis and Testing

When your cat has difficulty urinating, prompt diagnostic steps are critical for identifying the underlying condition. A series of tests can confirm whether there’s an obstruction, infection, or other issues causing the symptoms.

Veterinary Examination

Your veterinarian will first perform a thorough physical examination to assess signs such as abdominal pain, bladder distension, and any distress your cat may be showing. During the examination, they will palpate the abdomen to determine if the bladder is enlarged or if there is any pain response that could indicate a urinary issue.

Urine Analysis

A urine test is a standard procedure to evaluate your cat’s condition. This test involves checking for:

  • pH levels of the urine to identify urinary tract issues.
  • Blood tinged urine which could indicate inflammation or blockage.

A urine culture may also be performed to detect the presence of bacteria, which is suggestive of an infection.

Imaging Tests

X-rays or an ultrasound may be necessary to look inside your cat’s urinary tract. These imaging tests can reveal the presence of stones, crystals, or other blockages that might prevent normal urination. If your cat is sedated during this procedure, it ensures they remain still for clear imaging results.

Specialized Procedures

In some cases, more specialized procedures are needed. A catheter may be inserted to relieve a blockage or to collect urine directly from the bladder. If a urinary catheter is used, it will help to diagnose the cause of the obstruction and also provide immediate relief from urine buildup.

Treatment Options

When your cat is unable to pee, prompt and appropriate treatment is critical. Treatment can vary widely depending on the underlying cause, but may include emergency care, surgical interventions, medications, and dietary adjustments.

Emergency Care

If you observe that your cat is unable to urinate, immediate veterinary attention is necessary. In an emergency, the vet may need to relieve the blockage by inserting a urinary catheter. This is often accompanied by fluid therapy to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. For severe cases, hospitalization might be required to closely monitor your cat’s condition.

Surgical Interventions

Surgery may be needed if there are reoccurring blockages, especially in male cats due to their narrower urethra. One such procedure is perineal urethrostomy, which widens the urethral opening to help prevent future obstructions. This surgery is typically recommended after conservative treatments have failed.

Medications and Supplements

Your vet may prescribe a range of medications, including antibiotics for UTIs or infections, and pain medication to ease discomfort. Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin may be advised to support bladder health, and some owners find natural supplements such as cranberry, marshmallow root, or apple cider vinegar beneficial, although you should consult your vet before starting any supplements.

Dietary Changes

Adopting a special urinary diet is often crucial in managing urinary issues. This might include increasing your cat’s water intake by switching to a wet food diet, or incorporating water-rich foods and providing plenty of fresh water. Some urinary diets are designed to dissolve certain types of stones and crystals, which can cause or contribute to urethral blockages. Reducing the occurrence of cystitis can sometimes be as simple as altering the cat’s diet; however, it’s essential to consult your vet for recommendations tailored to your cat’s specific needs.

Managing and Preventing Recurrences

Effective management and prevention of recurrences in feline lower urinary tract diseases involve creating a stress-free environment and adopting specific behavioral and dietary practices. These strategies help reduce the risk of urinary obstructions and idiopathic cystitis in cats.

Environmental Modifications

Litter Box Hygiene: Maintaining a clean litter box is crucial. Your cat’s litter box should be scooped at least once a day and fully cleaned regularly. Use unscented litter and provide one more litter box than the number of cats.

  • Number and Placement of Litter Boxes: If you have multiple cats, ensure each one has access to its own litter box. Place them in quiet, accessible locations to encourage frequent urination, which helps prevent the formation of crystals and urethral plugs.

Stress Reduction: Reduce environmental stressors that could contribute to idiopathic cystitis. This includes:

  • Providing separate resources (food, water, litter boxes) in multi-cat households.
  • Using pheromone diffusers to create a calming environment.
  • Ensuring your cat has places to hide and perch, promoting a sense of security.

Behavioral and Dietary Strategies

Dietary Changes: Switch your cat to a wet food diet, complemented by fresh water to increase water intake, which dilutes urine and reduces the risk of crystal and urethral plug formation.

  • Prescriptive Diets: Consult your veterinarian about a specialized urinary diet which can alter the pH of urine and prevent the development of scar tissue and recurrence of feline idiopathic cystitis.

Hydration Encouragement: Encourage your cat to drink more water by:

  • Using water fountains which attract cats to drink more often due to the running water.
  • Placing water bowls throughout the house, away from the litter box and food.

Physical Activity: Increase your cat’s activity levels to promote bladder health and frequent urination:

  • Engage your cat in regular playtime.
  • Offer toys that stimulate movement and exercise.

By incorporating these strategies into your routine, you can help manage and prevent the recurrence of urinary issues in your cat.


If your cat is experiencing difficulty urinating or is unable to pee, prompt veterinary attention is critical to address potential life-threatening conditions. Several factors such as urinary tract infections, blockages, or kidney issues might be the underlying causes. Early detection and treatment significantly improve outcomes.

What You Should Do:

  • Monitor Urination regularly for changes in frequency, color, or effort.
  • Ensure Hydration by providing constant access to fresh water and consider wet food to enhance fluid intake.
  • Limit Stress as it can contribute to urinary problems; create a calm environment for your feline friend.

Post-Treatment Follow-Up:

  • Regularly schedule follow-up visits with the vet to monitor your cat’s bladder health.
  • Implement any dietary changes recommended by your vet to support urinary health.

Remember, your proactive measures and keen observation are vital for the well-being of your companion. By understanding the implications of urinary changes and being prepared to act, you play a key role in managing your cat’s health.

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