Why does my kitten have diarrhea? When you should be concerned

Why does my kitten have diarrhea?
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re asking, “why does my kitten have diarrhea?” there’s a good chance it hasn’t been a one-off event. An isolated gastrointestinal issue can usually be passed off as a kitten having consumed something that hasn’t agreed with them and it’s generally nothing to worry about. But if there are other symptoms or if the diarrhea persists, then you’re going to be understandably alarmed.

Kitten diarrhea happens for many reasons and it’s a relatively common ailment. Dietary sensitivities are usually to blame but runny poop can also be due to an intestinal infection. The trick is to try and identify the cause, usually with the help of a vet if the problem continues. Diarrhea can also be prevented in some cases, often by feeding the best kitten food.

To help you best identify if you have a problem on your hands, we’ve enlisted the help of expert vet Dr Catherine Barnette. As well as explaining the things you need to watch out for, she also explores the best preventative measures.

What is kitten diarrhea?

Kitten diarrhea is poop that looks like liquid or mush. It is typically stinky and messy which is why most cat owners will want to put a stop to it quickly. Diarrhea is also a potential warning sign that your kitten is not feeling well, although it must be pointed out that not all episodes of diarrhea require immediate veterinary care.

Severe or persistent diarrhea will always warrant a visit to your veterinarian to identify and treat the underlying cause, however. At the very least, since diarrhea causes dehydration, a vet will also offer assistance in ensuring your pet becomes healthy again. 

“A single episode of soft stool in an otherwise healthy kitten can probably be monitored at home,” says Dr Barnette. “Veterinary care may only be needed if the diarrhea recurs or the kitten begins to show other signs of illness.”

Why does my kitten have diarrhea?

There are many potential causes of kitten diarrhea and they can include dietary insensitivities, toxin exposure, congenital defects, environmental stress and other underlying reasons.

Commonly, however, diarrhea is caused by one of the following, Dr Barnette says.

  • Sudden diet changes. If you recently adopted your kitten and are feeding a different diet than they were eating with their breeder or at the shelter, this could potentially be a cause of your cat’s soft stools.
  • Intestinal parasites: Hookworms and roundworms are common in kittens, and can be acquired during pregnancy or nursing. All kittens should be treated with dewormer every 2-3 weeks, to reduce the risk of these intestinal parasites. If your kitten has not received regular deworming, intestinal worms are a likely cause of diarrhea.
  • Protozoal infections: Protozoal infections, such as Coccidia, Giardia and Tritrichomonas, can cause intestinal inflammation and diarrhea in kittens. 
  • Viral infections: Kittens are susceptible to several viruses that can cause diarrhea, including panleukopenia, feline coronavirus, feline rotavirus, feline leukemia virus, and feline immunodeficiency virus.
  • Bacterial infections: Some bacteria, such as Salmonella, Clostridia, and Campylobacter, can be associated with diarrhea in kittens.

Should I be worried if my kitten has diarrhea?

Diarrhea that is associated with a diet change is often relatively mild and will resolve within a few days as your kitten becomes acclimated to their new food. But when determining how worried you need to be and how urgently you will need to seek veterinary care, Dr Barnette says there are a few factors to consider:

  • Frequency: Has your kitten had a single soft bowel movement or have there been multiple episodes of diarrhea? A single episode of diarrhea isn’t necessarily concerning, but repeated episodes warrant a veterinary visit.
  • Duration: How long has the diarrhea been occurring? One day of diarrhea could indicate that your kitten ate something that didn’t agree with their stomach. Diarrhea that persists over several days is more likely to suggest an underlying medical cause, and can also pose a greater dehydration risk for your kitten. 
  • Consistency: Is your kitten’s stool just a bit on the soft side, or is your kitten producing large amounts of watery feces? The higher the liquid content of your kitten’s diarrhea, the more urgent it is to address the issue before your kitten becomes dehydrated. 
  • Presence of other signs: Is your kitten vomiting, refusing food and water, acting lethargic, or showing other signs of illness? If so, your kitten should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. If your kitten is happy, playful, eating well, and showing no other signs of illness, it may be okay to monitor your kitten for 24 hours and see if their diarrhea resolves on its own. 

“Frequent, severe, watery diarrhea accompanied by other signs of illness should receive veterinary treatment as soon as possible,” she adds. “This may mean visiting a veterinary emergency clinic, if it is outside of your veterinarian’s normal office hours.”

Kitten laying on a blanket

(Image credit: Getty)

How will a vet treat diarrhea?

Diarrhea that is persistent or severe requires veterinary attention. “Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam, palpating (feeling) your kitten’s abdomen and assessing their hydration status,” says Dr Barnette. “Next, your veterinarian will perform fecal testing to look for intestinal parasites. Depending on the severity of your kitten’s diarrhea and other clinical signs that may be present, your veterinarian might also recommend bloodwork and other diagnostic testing.”

Can kitten diarrhea go away on its own?

Diarrhea in a newly adopted kitten may be associated with environmental stress and a sudden diet change. If the diarrhea is mild and your kitten is not showing any other signs of illness, this diarrhea may resolve on its own. “In many cases, however, kitten diarrhea is associated with an infection or other underlying medical condition,” Dr Barnette adds. “Your veterinarian will perform a thorough workup to determine the cause of your kitten’s diarrhea, then recommend an appropriate treatment to address the condition.”

How can I prevent my kitten from getting diarrhea?

First of all, minimize dietary changes. Second, ensure your kitten receives regular veterinary care. Follow those two steps and you will, in many cases, prevent your kitten from getting diarrhea. 

It’s certainly important to be careful when changing cat food. “Sudden diet changes are a common cause of diarrhea in both kittens and adult cats,” Dr Barnette says. “Make dietary changes slowly and gradually, over a period of seven to 10 days.”

Dr Barnette advises adding a small amount of your kitten’s new diet to the food they were previously eating on the first day. “Gradually increase the quantity of new food while decreasing the quantity of their previous diet, aiming to feed a 50/50 mix of their old/new food by day three to five,” she adds. “Continue this gradual transition, until your kitten is eating exclusively their new food after seven to 10 days.”

Veterinary care also plays a key role in reducing kitten diarrhea. “Your kitten should see a veterinarian approximately every three weeks from the time they are six weeks old until they reach 16 weeks of age,” Dr Barnette says. “At these veterinary visits, your veterinarian will check your kitten for intestinal parasites and administer a broad-spectrum dewormer. Your veterinarian will also administer vaccines that protect against many causes of kitten diarrhea.”

Kitten eating from food bowl

(Image credit: Getty)

Found this article informative? Then be sure to check out other related articles such as discovering the cause of a kitten not eating and 32 of the most common illness in cats.

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.