What Causes Kitten Diarrhea?

CatChannel and CAT FANCY veterinary expert Arnold Plotnick, DVM, explains some common causes of diarrhea in kittens.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM | Posted: July 27, 2012, 12 a.m. EST

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Tabby Kitten -- What Causes Kitten Diarrhea
Q: I bought a 9 week old kitten from a pet store, and he had diarrhea from the start. I took him to the vet with stool samples, and they gave him Drontal for worms. The vet never found anything in the samples but gave me Metronidazole 50mg/ml suspension just in case. The medicine didn't help so they put him on Hill's Prescription Diet i/d and canned pumpkin. When that didn't work, they put him on Hill's Prescription Diet d/d and wanted to wait four weeks to see if it helped.

A couple of times, his stool was a little bit more formed; I saw some red spots in some stool and I think it was from my kitten but can't be sure because I have other cats. If this d/d doesn't help what could be wrong with him and what can I do for him seeing as my vet can't ever find anything in his stool?

A: So many kittens at shelters and humane societies are in need of loving homes that I hope you adopt your next cat from them. In my experience, kittens purchased from pet stores are rarely in good health, and problems like chronic kitten diarrhea you describe are not uncommon.

Kittens typically have diarrhea from either a parasite problem or a dietary problem. (Click each for more information.)
•    Hookworms and roundworms (both long, white worms that damage the intestines) are common parasites in cats. I doubt that your cat has these, and the Drontal your vet prescribed is effective against hookworms and roundworms and would have treated them.  
•    Tritrichomonas is a protozoan parasite that can cause persistent diarrhea in kittens. I think your cat should be tested for this parasite.
•    Giardia is a protozoan parasite that can cause diarrhea in kittens. Metronidazole is usually effective against this parasite (although resistance is becoming more common). Your cat didn't respond to metronidazole, and I suspect that this is not the problem either. Still, I would have your vet run a giardia ELISA test to be certain. This is a more precise test to detect the presence of giardia.
•    Campylobacter and clostridium are two bacteria that can also be responsible for the diarrhea.
•    Coccidiosis or coccidia is a common parasitic infection in cats that  can cause watery diarrhea, sometimes with a little blood (possibly the red spots you're seeing in the stool) in kittens. It is especially common in cats that come from pet stores.

Kitten Health Diagnosis
I suspect your cat has some type of parasitic or infectious diarrhea. It is usually easily detected in a stool sample, however, and the stool samples you submitted came back negative. Still, you might want to discuss with your vet the option of treating this condition, to see if the kitten responds. We used to use a drug called Albon to treat, which required a 14 day course of treatment, however, there are newer drugs such as ponazuril that only require one or two doses. Ponazuril is not approved for use in cats, however. It has to be formulated by a compounding formulary into a liquid that is the proper strength.  

The best way to diagnose these infectious causes of diarrhea is by a test called a fecal PCR test. This very sensitive test detects minute amounts of DNA from these organisms. Have your vet run this test and prescribe specific treatment based on the test results. If everything tests negative, you may simply have to try a variety of diets until you find one that causes the firmest stool.

Dietary Help
Diet can help counter the effects of diarrhea for cats with food allergies or cats with digestive issues.
•    Hill's Prescription Diet i/d is a highly digestible diet that is designed for cats with digestive issues. It's a very nutritious diet and will even support growth in kittens, so a dietary trial with this diet was reasonable.
•    Canned pumpkin adds a little fiber to the food, in the hopes of firming up the stool.
•    Hill's d/d is a hypoallergenic diet designed for cats with food allergy.  

Several kittens in my practice have had chronic diarrhea that tested negative on every test I ran. These kittens simply “outgrew” their diarrhea as they got older, and we never determined the cause of the diarrhea. 
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Reader Comments

Christine    Belfair, WA

3/5/2014 6:11:17 AM

I am responding to this site because I adopted my cat from a humane society. He had conjunctivitis and was quarantined before he was released to me. I got him home and he was adjusting. He seemed to have a lot of sneezing,smelly diarrhea,and mucous breath. He does seem to be high strung a little bit. I kept his kitty litter box CLEAN each time he went. He is not around any other cats in order to pass germs back and forth. He finally quit the diarrhea. The green mucous sneezes continued but finally quit after about 6 to 7 months of my having him. He does however continue to have mucous vomits that is not the same as coughing up hairballs. I am still working on the mucous vomits and the bad breath like mucous bad breath. It might be due to his breed. Anyone can email me if you have an idea about the mucous condition that I have not been able to get rid of yet. I am used to having animals all my life but I am thinking his condition might be genetic due to his species. He is a short hair silver in appearance. He is about 2 years old. He is often licking his mouth like he might vomit maybe an upset system. He is active and mostly indoors at this time.
I just wanted to share my experience under similar circumstance to clear some conditions that others might be experiencing. I am still trying to cure his mucous breath. He is not Ocelot.He does weigh about 15 lbs and is still thin.

TJF    Ft. Lauderdale, FL

2/2/2014 12:36:18 PM

An additional suggestion from me, with the diarrhea cat comment below: if you use the Vetasyl caps and the W.D. dry food, make sure you have a cat fountain and/or plenty of fresh clean water on hand, because its important that they drink a lot of water when they are on the Vetasyl fiber caps.

TJF    Ft. Lauderdale, FL

2/2/2014 12:33:07 PM

Thanks so much, Dr. Plotnick, for this informative article.

One of my cats had this troublesome diarrhea, which, after many visits to the cat vet, ruling out parasites, and other health issues, we did many changes of food, meds, etc.

We determined that he had IBD, but I understand you can't exactly get a diagnosis without an invasive biopsy but that seems to be what it would be.

After trying many approaches, we ended up giving him one Vetasyl ( psyllium: fiber) cap a day, mixed with water, mixed again into his prescription Hills Science Diet W.D. dry food.

We found that with the WD dry and the Vetasyl cap, all mixed with enough water to make it moist, it stopped his smelly soft stools and diarrhea.

He has been on this combination for two years now and we have had no more diarrhea. We found that his food has to be a good low fat, under 8% fat, he can't have canned of any kind and he has to have that Vetasyl cap opened and mixed with water, in his food daily. His stools are not 'hard tootsie rolls,' but they are shaped, formed, don't smell and he is doing much better.

And of course, I learned to get a high quality kitty litter and scoop the boxes twice a day.

Beth    Wauconda, IL

10/18/2013 12:00:10 PM

I would like to add that they need to keep this kitten separate from the other cats until they have the condition diagnosed. Many of the potential causes are contagious and can be passed through the litterbox and/or grooming

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