Urinary tract infections in cats can be painful and lead to other issues. Know the signs so you can treat your cat's UTI quickly.
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cat standing in litter box; what to do if your cat has a UTI
Credit: ZoranMilisavljevic83 / Getty

"It hurts when I pee" is no joke for humans or cats. When your cat experiences difficulty or pain while urinating, it's difficult for both of you. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) make normal parts of every day hard for your cat and hard for you. Frequent and long trips to the litter box and more meows than normal on potty breaks signal a real problem. Some cats even begin house soiling as they shy away from a litter box associated with frustration and pain.

Left untreated, cat UTIs can lead to more serious infections. Here's how to work with your veterinarian on treatment and prevention to tackle what's behind your cat's trouble peeing. 

Causes of Urinary Tract Issues in Cats

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses that have worked their way into the urethra (a small tube where urine leaves the bladder and the body). Most UTIs are caused by bacteria and typically affect the urethra and bladder. Left untreated, they can spread to the kidneys, causing a serious infection called pyelonephritis.

UTIs are not especially common in cats, but other urinary tract issues occur often. Your cat's trouble urinating can have a number of possible causes, some of which can be painful. Urinary conditions can block the flow of urine or inflame parts of the urinary tract. If you've been on the hunt for information online, you may have heard about feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), which is a catch-all term for a variety of possible culprits, including UTIs and the following conditions: 

  • Urinary stones, which develop in the bladder from microscopic crystals (humans develop similar painful stones)
  • Urethral obstruction (blockage), possibly caused by crystalized minerals in the urine, an injury, a tumor, or an abnormality your cat has had since birth
  • Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC), which is inflammation of a cat's bladder with an unknown cause. This is a common diagnosis in cats less than 10 years old. A veterinarian may diagnose the condition after ruling out other conditions. 

Some cats are predisposed to problems of the lower urinary tract, especially cats older than 10 years and those with kidney disease or diabetes.

A veterinarian can help you figure out the underlying cause of your cat's urinary issues. Proper testing and diagnosis is crucial because some forms of FLUTD are very serious.

Warning Signs of Urinary Tract Infections 

Because you live with your favorite feline, you are the perfect person to notice changes in behavior. You know your cat's normal litter box habits better than anyone. Possible signs of a UTI include:

  • More frequent visits to the litter box and/or more frequent attempts to urinate during a visit
  • Straining to urinate
  • Crying out, whining, or loud meows (if urinating is painful)
  • Inappropriate urination (anything from peeing off the side of the litter box to avoiding the litter box entirely)
  • Blood in urine
  • More frequent licking of the genitals
  • Especially strong urine odor

Treating Urinary Tract Infections in Cats

If you see warning signs of a urinary tract infection in your cat, it's important to contact a veterinarian. The vet will do a physical exam and likely collect a urine sample for urinalysis. If a UTI is the prime suspect, your vet may prescribe antibiotics even before receiving results from your cat's urine test.

With a vet's diagnosis in hand, you still play a crucial part in helping treat your cat at home. If your vet has prescribed an antibiotic, you'll need to make sure to give all the medicine for as long as recommended. 

"If your cat is diagnosed with a bacterial condition, it is imperative that you give the medication exactly as instructed," says Kathryn Primm, DVM at Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee. "Otherwise, you risk only killing the part of the bacteria that are most susceptible to the drug and leaving the others to reproduce." 

How long your cat is on antibiotics for a UTI is best determined by your vet. If you're having trouble giving your cat the medicine, let the vet know. Pills or liquids are options, but an unfinished round of antibiotics may give the bacteria a chance to return, and stronger bacteria can also lead to new drug-resistant strains that harm humans and pets.

If the antibiotics for your cat's UTI are not working, your vet may prescribe a different antibiotic or recommend further testing to see if there's another cause for the problem. A urine culture and sensitivity test can identify the type of bacteria present and evaluate how it responds to various antibiotics, enabling your vet to prescribe the most effective treatment. In addition to antibiotics, some cats will need fluid therapy and various medications to treat the UTI and any associated complications.

UTI treatment costs vary depending on the testing and medicine necessary to get your cat healthy and feeling better. Primm understands how frustrating that can be. "Trust me, we all want to be able to just treat feline urinary problems with an antibiotic and be done, but this isn't the case," she says. "Urinary issues can be complex, and each cat is different. A trusting relationship with your veterinarian is your very best tool to manage urinary disease in cats."

How to Prevent Cat Urinary Tract Infections 

There is always a chance, and sometimes a good chance, that your cat's UTI or other lower urinary tract problem will recur. Some recommendations to help prevent recurrences of UTIs and other issues are relatively inexpensive. You can start by taking steps to keep your cat healthy. In addition, your veterinarian may suggest some options like these:

Adjust your cat's diet. Feed measured, high-quality meals on a regular basis (no binging!) and keep your cat at a healthy weight. With your vet's recommendation, consider a change to a specialized diet for urinary conditions or a switch to wet food (which provides more water). Here are tips from the American Association of Feline Practitioners covering best practices for healthy feeding.

Manage your cat's water. Keep bowls clean and fresh at all times. More water intake can lower urine concentration, making it more difficult for debris and microorganisms to clump and multiply. You may also consider getting a drinking fountain since many cats are drawn to flowing water.

Improve your litter box hygiene. Offer enough litter boxes (one for each cat plus one more, if you can). "Don't hide them away where they're hard to get to for your cat," Primm says. Scoop the boxes twice daily (or get an automated litter box to do it) and replace all the litter at least weekly. Note your own cat's preferences for the litter box and the litter itself. Primm says some cats like covered boxes, some don't, and different litter appeals to different litter box users. The American Association of Feline Practitioners has helpful tips on how to manage and prevent cat house soiling, covering everything from litter box size to the location of the box within the home

Calm your cat. Avoid major changes in household routine, and watch for ways to reduce your cat's stress and anxiety. Consider making some changes in your home to enrich your cat's life. Learn more about your cats' senses and ways veterinarians think cats get stressed—which can manifest itself in the form of illness.

If urination problems occur again, don't give up, Primm says. "In the past, it seemed like we had many cases of FLUTD that never resolved," she says. "I think the veterinary industry is making headway in understanding and treating this issue, and that makes me happy."

Talk to your vet about the best preventive care and UTI treatments for your cat.