Bacterial urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a fairly common condition among cats. While UTIs are usually relatively easy to diagnose and cure, they can develop into a more serious condition if left untreated. Urinary tract infections can occur in both young and old cats. However, they tend to be much more common in females than in males.
Signs and Symptoms of a UTI in Cats
To catch a UTI early enough to prevent it from developing into a more serious health condition, it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms. Unlike human urinary tract infections, feline UTIs can be asymptomatic, so the infection may be discovered as a result of another medical issue.
If any of the following signs present themselves, contact your vet immediately:
- Difficult / painful urination: If your cat cries out while urinating, or very little urine passes, a UTI may be the cause.
- Incontinence: A UTI can cause temporary lack of bladder control.
- Blood in the urine
- Urinary blockage: This life-threatening condition occurs almost exclusively in males. If you see your cat anxiously going in and out of the litter box without producing much urine, call your veterinarian immediately (or take your kitty to the nearest veterinary emergency clinic if your regular vet’s office is closed).
- Urinating outside the litter box: In some cases, a cat will urinate in other locations around the house.
- Overly thirsty: If your cat begins drinking an excessive amount of water, it’s cause for concern.
- Lethargy or listlessness
- Excessive licking at the urethra and abdomen
Urinary tract infections, if not caught early on, can lead to more serious problems. Although cats can be asymptomatic, if any symptoms do present themselves, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
How Did My Cat Get a UTI?
In general, urinary tract infections develop when the urethra becomes contaminated with bacteria that normally colonize the rectum and surrounding area. Once in the urethra, the bacteria migrate “upstream” and take up residence in the bladder. (Females have much shorter and wider urethras than males do, which is why females develop UTIs more frequently.)
The presence of mineralized stones or crystals in the urine may also be a cause of UTIs. Because the crystals are hard and irritating to the bladder, there’s a greater risk for infection.
Urinary tract infections are usually caused by bacteria traveling up the urethra into the bladder. Occasionally, UTIs are caused by bladder stones.
Diagnosing a UTI in Cats
When diagnosing a UTI, your veterinarian will begin by taking a complete medical history. The vet may ask about changes in your cat’s water consumption, frequency of urination, amount of urination, how the urine looks, and any behavioral changes. Your vet will also perform a physical examination to assess the bladder and kidneys, as well as the genitalia and sometimes the rectum. If there is trouble with urination, a neurological exam may be conducted.
Your cat’s urine and blood will also be tested. Urinalysis is one of the most important and useful tests for diagnosing a UTI. It will look for the presence of certain chemicals or substances in the urine, like sugar, ketones, bilirubin, blood, and protein. A urinalysis is best conducted on a fresh urine sample to prevent inaccurate results.
Based on the findings, additional testing may need to be conducted. In particular, a urine culture may be performed to confirm the presence of an infection and to determine what type of bacteria are involved. Since it often takes 3 to 5 days to obtain final culture results, your veterinarian will likely start your cat on broad-spectrum antibiotics in the interim. The typical duration of antibiotic therapy is 7 to 14 days.
Other possible tests include blood pressure, x-rays, ultrasonography, biopsies, and a cystoscopy, which allows the doctor to see changes or problems in the urinary tract more clearly. However, in the vast majority of cases, this kind of extensive diagnostic testing is not needed.
In an effort to rule out different possible causes for a UTI (such as bladder stones), your vet will conduct a variety of tests after gathering your cat’s medical history and performing a physical exam.
Treating Your Cat for a UTI
Almost all urinary tract infections can be treated on an outpatient basis. In addition to antibiotics, your veterinarian may recommend an injection of subcutaneous (“subQ”) fluids to help rehydrate your cat, as well as a short course of pain medications (UTIs are uncomfortable!). Occasionally, if a cat is debilitated or if the UTI has spread to the kidneys (pyelonephritis), hospitalization may be recommended.
Diet plays a part in treatment and can help prevent additional UTIs. Drinking plenty of water will help flush out the bladder, and get rid of crystals and cellular debris that can lead to the creation of urinary tract stones. If there are excess crystals in the urine, a special diet will be necessary for a few weeks to change the pH of the urine, which will help dissolve the crystals. Once the crystals are gone, talk to your vet about a preventative diet that will prevent the crystals from reforming.
Is There a Cure for UTIs?
Yes, medication can treat and cure a UTI. If the UTI is secondary to bladder stones, surgery may be needed to remove the stones.
Is a UTI Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
No, UTIs are not contagious.
What Is the Cost for Treating a UTI?
The cost to treat a UTI can run anywhere from a few hundred dollars into the thousands, depending on the severity of the infection and what needs to be done. Generally, the bigger the city you live in, the higher the costs for medical treatment.
Owners can expect costs to include:
- Office visits
- Possible surgery / hospitalization and other life-saving procedures. (This is when costs can skyrocket.)
As mentioned above, treating most UTIs is very straightforward, so expenses should be very reasonable.
Recovery and Management of a UTI
The recovery period depends on the severity of the UTI and how quickly the cat was treated. If the infection is caught early on, and there are no other developments as a result, a full recovery should be expected within a few days or so of beginning antibiotic therapy. Some cats seem markedly improved after even one dose of antibiotics. However, ALWAYS complete the full course of medications exactly as directed by your veterinarian.
Occasionally, cats will develop frequent, recurrent urinary tract infections. In these cases, a longer course of antibiotics (6 weeks or more) and repeat urine cultures may be necessary.
For most cats with a UTI, recovery should happen fairly quickly after treatment has begun. For infections that are more severe, recovery time is longer and may involve multiple tests over a period of time.
Preventing a UTI
Your vet may recommend a diet that helps not only with healing but prevents recurrence as well. Certain stone-dissolving foods can help prevent crystals from forming in your cat’s urinary tract. There are also commercial foods that promote urinary tract health. Consult your vet on what type of food is right for your cat.
Feeding your cat a canned-food diet or mixing wet food with dry kibble helps provide additional hydration.
Keeping your cat at a healthy weight is also important; overweight/obese cats tend to have more health issues than cats of a normal weight. Provide your cat with toys that stimulate physical activity.
Because anxiety may play a part in urinary tract disease, it’s important to keep your cat’s stress level as low as possible. Cats do not like change, no matter how subtle it may be, so try to keep changes to your cat’s routine and/or environment to a minimum.
Is There a Vaccine for a UTI?
There are no vaccines for urinary tract infections.
Diet, water intake, weight, and stress are all factors to consider when it comes to managing and preventing urinary tract infections. Know the signs and symptoms of UTIs so you can seek medical attention for your cat as soon as possible to prevent further complications from developing.