Written by Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT
Whether you have a self-cleaning litter box or a traditional scoop litter box, it’s important to pay attention to your cat’s litter box habits. Case in point: colitis in cats. Most of the signs pointing toward feline colitis happen in and around the litter box.
What is colitis in cats?
Colitis is defined as inflammation of the large intestinal tract, the latter part of your cat’s gastrointestinal tract. This typically is of the colon, with “-itis” defined as “inflammation.”
What are signs of colitis in cats?
Signs of colitis in cats may be acute (can develop suddenly and last for a few days) or chronic (can last for several weeks, if not longer). Signs include:
- Straining to defecate
- Defecating small amounts
- Defecating mucus or blood
- Making multiple trips to the litter box, potentially with increased urgency
- Having pudding consistency to watery diarrhea – potentially bloody
- Acting painful when defecating
- Having fecal accidents (or “drips”) outside of the litter box
- Acting “constipated”
- Decreased appetite to not eating anything
- Weight loss
- Acting hungrier
- Increased intestinal “noise” or contractions
- Increased flatulence
- Difficult to scoop feces
- Fresh, red blood in the litter box
- Gelatinous or mucous material in the litter box
- Fecal incontinence
- Rectal prolapse, where part of the tissue of the colon is pushing out of the perineal region (rare)
If you see your cat making multiple trips to the litter box (or get notified by your litter box app) with little or no results, it’s best to contact your veterinarian right away.
What causes colitis in cats?
There are numerous causes for colitis in cats, and some causes are more common in younger versus older cats. In younger cats, I’m more worried about gastrointestinal parasites, infectious causes, bacterial infections, or even dietary issues. In middle-aged to older cats, I’m more worried about inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or even intestinal cancer (e.g., lymphoma) as the cause of colitis. Regardless of the cause of colitis in your cat, it should be treated immediately by your veterinarian to prevent health problems, the spread to other cats in the household, or even zoonotic spread to you.
Causes for colitis in cats include:
- Sudden diet change
- Gastrointestinal parasites (e.g., roundworms, Coccidia)
- Protozoal infections (e.g., Giardia, Tritrichomonas)
- Antibiotic therapy
- Inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., food intolerances)
- Intestinal cancer (e.g., lymphoma, adenocarcinoma)
- Pancreas problems (e.g., pancreatitis, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency)
- Viral infections (e.g., Feline Infectious Peritonitis, Feline Leukemia, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus)
- Food allergies
- Bacterial infections (e.g., Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium)
- Foreign bodies (something stuck in their intestinal tract)
- Metabolic problems (e.g., kidney failure, liver disease)
- Endocrine problems (e.g., hyperthyroidism)
- Fungal infections in the gastrointestinal tract
- Polyps or other types of cancer
How do you diagnose colitis in cats?
Your veterinarian will need to run several tests to diagnose colitis in your cat. Typically, a preliminary diagnosis of colitis is based on history (such as sudden diet change, new cats introduced into the environment, etc.), clinical signs (like sudden bloody diarrhea), fecal tests, and blood work. Depending on the age of your cat, I’ll do certain tests over others. For example, in a younger cat, I’m more likely to start with fecal tests, while in an older cat, I’m more likely to run a series of tests, as I’m more worried about cancer.
To figure out what’s causing colitis in your cat, some of these tests may include:
- A fecal test (to look for roundworms, Giardia, etc.)
- A fecal smear/cytology
- A complete blood count (CBC) to evaluate the red and white blood cell count, along with the platelet count
- A biochemistry panel to evaluate the protein, electrolytes, kidney function and liver enzymes
- A thyroid test (T4) in any cat over 7 years of age
- A urinalysis to evaluate the urine/kidney function
- Atypical vitamin level measurements (e.g., folate/cobalamin)
- X-rays to look at the size of the organs, heart size, gas patterns within the intestinal tract, etc.
- Abdominal ultrasound to look at the architecture or “inside” of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, tubes from the gallbladder, etc., as X-rays can’t do this
- Other less common tests such as PCR (for Trichomonas, Salmonella, and Cryptosporidium, Clostridium, etc.), fecal cultures (for Salmonella, Campylobacter, Trichomonas), and/or intestinal biopsies (by endoscopy or surgery)
What’s the treatment for colitis in cats?
The treatment for colitis in cats typically depends on the age of the cat, if the colitis is mild to severe, and whether the colitis is acute or chronic. In most cases of acute colitis in young cats, I generally recommend running several fecal tests. Depending on these results, treatment includes deworming medication (also often called anthelmintics), +/- probiotics, transient diet change, and subcutaneous (SQ) fluids (if necessary). If there’s no improvement, I generally recommend a short course of a highly digestible, high fiber diet or even a “hypoallergenic diet” along with an additional therapeutic course of a dewormer (such as a 5-7 day course of fenbendazole). With chronic colitis, I recommend using higher levels of fiber in the diet and a more thorough medical work-up, including the tests listed above.
What’s the outcome for colitis in cats?
Ultimately, it’s important to treat your cat’s colitis, as chronic weight loss, lack of absorption of key vitamins and minerals, and general deterioration can occur. Thankfully, the prognosis for colitis in cats is generally good, provided that the cause isn’t due to cancer. With early diagnosis, the prognosis is better, as we can treat it. Regardless, for the sake of your cat’s health and your litter box, make sure to treat your cat’s inflammation of their gastrointestinal tract!
Cover photo by Thewonderalice on Unsplash