Is Your Cat Having Trouble Urinating? About Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (Urinary Blockage)

Have you ever had several cups of coffee and no access to a toilet? Having a full bladder and being unable to empty it is definitely uncomfortable. Cats with feline lower urinary tract disease are in pain. If this condition is untreated it can be fatal.

Symptoms of a urinary tract blockage:

Straining to urinate
Frequent trips to the litter box with either no success or only small amounts of urine being produced
Licking of the genital area
Leaving small amounts of urine in strange spots in the house such as the bathtub
Inappetance and lethargy
Some cats will walk very gingerly because of the pain in their bladder
Many cats will yowl because of the pain

A urinary tract blockage is a condition of male cats. (It is quite rare for a female cat to have this problem). Male cats have a very tiny urethra to urinate through. If there is debris such as crystals or sloughed cells in the urethra we can get either a partial or a complete blockage.

Causes of FLUTD

The exact cause is not always known. In the past we used to blame "high ash diets" for this condition. While there is some truth to this, there are actually a number of factors that can contribute to a urinary tract blockage.

High Ash?

High ash means that there is a large amount of mineral such as calcium, magnesium and others in the food. There is more ash produced when a food is manufactured with a low quality meat. But, recent studies have shown that it is not actually the ash content that we are worried about but rather the urinary pH and something called relative supersaturation.

Urinary pH

If the pH of a cat's urine is high then this creates a favorable environment for struvite crystals to form. There are several possible causes for high pH including:

poor quality cat food
bacteria in the urinary tract
feeding your cat certain foods that cause an increase in urinary pH such as milk

Struvite crystals:

A few struvite crystals in the urine do not cause a problem. However, large amounts of crystals can cause inflammation which leads to pain, bleeding and can lead to infection. The crystals can clump together and form a tiny stone which can lodge in the urethra. Or, the inflammation can cause a buildup of "debris" which can form a plug in the urethra.

How serious is the problem?

A urinary tract blockage (or partial blockage) is a serious life threatening emergency! If you think your cat may have a blockage it is important for him to be seen immediately, even if it means a visit to the emergency clinic.

If the urethra is blocked, the buildup of pressure in the bladder causes an increase in pressure in the kidneys. A cat can go into kidney failure quite quickly when this happens. We will also see an increase in potassium. If potassium increases too much this can cause heart failure.

Please do not try to treat this at home. I have had many clients of Ask A Vet Question ask me if they could give antibiotics because they felt their cat had a urinary tract infection. A UTI is actually uncommon in cats. Antibiotics alone will not cure a urethral blockage.

What will your vet do?

Your vet may do:

A physical exam including palpation of the bladder. A very large bladder tells us that the cat is indeed blocked.
A urinalysis. They may get the urine sample by inserting a small needle into the bladder.
Bloodwork to determine if there is kidney disease and to help determine how life threatening the condition is.
If there is only a partial blockage and your cat is stable your vet may decide to try medical treatment which may include medications to help relax the urethra as well as pain medications and special food to help dissolve any crystals.
Most cats will need to have a urethral catheter placed. In most cases this needs to be done under an anesthetic.
Your cat will likely have to stay on intravenous fluids to help to support and flush the kidneys and bladder for a few days.
After 1-3 days your vet will pull out the urethral catheter and assess whether your cat can urinate on his own.

What will the cost be?

The cost depends on whether your cat needs anesthesia and how long of a hospital stay is needed. In my practice hospitalization of a blocked cat usually costs anywhere from $700 to $1500.

Will this happen again? Some cats have a predisposition to a urinary tract blockage and can block again days, weeks or months after the surgery. In order to prevent this from happening it is important that your cat stays on the prescription food that your vet gives to you and any medications that are prescribed. Your vet may also recommend rechecking your cat's urine a few times a year to see if any problems are brewing. If we can catch a urinary problem before a full blockage happens then many times it can be treated with medication rather than expensive hospitalization.

For some cats, a procedure called a perineal urethrostomy is a possibility. This is a surgery that opens up the urethra so that the opening is more like a female cat.

Ask a vet a question.

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