When cats urinate outside the litter box, no one’s happy. You’re not happy on your hands and knees, dabbing at the damp spot on your oriental rug. And your cat certainly isn’t happy to deal with a painful urinary tract, which is often the cause of this behavior. Feline lower urinary tract disease is one of the biggest concerns for cat owners.
So it’s only natural that cat owners like you might wonder if diet has any role in the problem. And if so, what can you change to avoid another carpet incident? As any cat owner has come to expect, the answer isn’t that simple. Read on for what you need to know about keeping that urinary tract healthy.
The Touchy Feline Urinary Tract
While there are behavioral reasons for your cat to eschew the litter box (no, he’s typically not getting revenge for being left alone last weekend), the most common medical causes are idiopathic cystitis and urinary tract stones.
Idiopathic cystitis is a term that means your cat’s bladder is inflamed for no obvious reason, although stress is suspected to play a role.
Urinary tract stones, or uroliths, form from microscopic crystals in your cat’s urine. The stones can lodge in the kidneys, travel down the ureter to the bladder and even cause a blockage in the urethra, the tube leading from the bladder to the outside of the body. When this happens, your cat may strain to urinate — often yowling in or around the litter box — with little to no effect. This is a medical emergency and your cat needs to see a veterinarian immediately.
What Causes Urinary Tract Stones
The two most common types of urinary tract stones in cats are struvite and calcium oxalate. Although stone development is still poorly understood, it appears there are a number of contributing factors, including the urine pH, diet and your cat’s water consumption.
Struvite crystals and stones tend to form in alkaline urine, or urine with a high pH. Foods high in minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus can increase the urine pH. Cats that are poorly hydrated, leading to more concentrated urine (less water content) may be at higher risk of forming urinary crystals and stones as well. Cats that develop struvite stones are typically fed a therapeutic diet that can dissolve the stones by acidifying the urine.
Calcium oxalate stones, on the other hand, tend to form in more acidic urine, or urine with a low pH. Foods low in magnesium and phosphate — typically designed to acidify the urine — may contribute to the development of calcium oxalate stones. The problem with calcium oxalate stones is they typically can’t be dissolved with diet, and must be removed surgically or through other methods.
Keeping the Urinary Tract Happy
If your cat is showing signs of lower urinary tract disease, including straining to urinate, bloody urine, accidents outside the litter box or more frequent urination, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Nailing down the correct diagnosis is the first step to reaching a resolution.
If your cat has struvite stones, your veterinarian will most likely prescribe a therapeutic diet to help dissolve the stones. Since the urine pH typically rises after the cat eats a meal (no matter what kind of diet they’re eating), it has been suggested that feeding smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day may reduce spikes in urine pH and possibly help prevent the formation of struvite stones.
If calcium oxalate stones are your cat’s problem, your veterinarian will recommend a way to remove the existing stones. To help prevent stones from developing in the future, your cat will most likely need to eat a diet that helps achieve a neutral pH that’s neither acidic nor alkaline.
In either case, improving your cat’s water consumption can also help to create more dilute urine, lowering the risk of stones. One way to do this is by feeding canned food, which has higher water content than dry. Plug-in water fountains that circulate the water may also appeal to your cat’s curiosity and encourage him or her to drink more. And that, eventually, may make both you and your cat happier.
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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.