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Ask Dr. T: What to Feed a Kitten with Diarrhea?

I have been helping a local animal rescue by fostering kittens during the busy springtime season. These little furry bundles have been such a trip to care for. They’re all very shy when they first come to my house but slowly turn into purring lovebugs. 

Since most of my foster kittens come from dodgy backgrounds, they usually have one or two health issues. Diarrhea is one of the most common problems we’ve dealt with in these foster kittens this year. Today I want to talk to you about what to feed a kitten with diarrhea.

How to Tell If Your Kitten Has Diarrhea

This may seem obvious, but if you’re using a good clumping cat litter you might not be able to tell that your kitten has soft poop. 

Kitten poop should be log-shaped. It’s ok if the pieces are a little moist, but they should have a definite form. 

Short of catching them in the act of defecating, there are a few other tell-tale signs to watch for

  • Feces smeared on the sides of the litterbox
  • More frequent pooping
  • Feces stuck on the fur
  • A very strong odor to poop in the litterbox
  • Noisy pooping
  • Takes a long time to finish pooping
formed kitten feces in a litterbox
Good signs: no smears of poop on the sides of the litterbox and formed feces!

Why Does My Kitten Have Diarrhea?

There are many causes of diarrhea in kittens. I always consider where they came from, their stress level, whether there are other symptoms and what they’re eating when I’m evaluating the situation. 

Common causes of diarrhea in kittens include (1)

  • Intestinal parasites: roundworms, hookworms, giardia, Tritrichomonas, coccidia, etc.
  • Viral infection: coronavirus, panleukopenia
  • Bacterial infection/imbalance
  • Stress from weaning, living in a shelter, changing homes, etc. 
  • Poor diet or food intolerance

Are you ready? Here comes the most important advice in this whole article: every kitten with diarrhea needs to see a veterinarian and have a fecal test for parasites. I also recommend viral testing for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and Feline Leukemia Virus be done during the first vet visit. 

Your vet might recommend other tests, depending on the kitten’s history and physical exam.

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Diarrhea, Not Gaining Weight & Other Symptoms

Kittens with chronic diarrhea often have other symptoms. Failure to gain weight and vomiting are common. Most domestic felines gain about a pound per month during the first 6 months of life. So if your 2-month-old kitten weighs only 1.5 pounds, she might be underweight. 

You should also evaluate her Body Condition Score (BCS) and consult your vet for their opinion. Some kittens just have a smaller frame, but if she feels bony and looks scruffy she might be falling behind the growth curve. 

If your kitten is not eating and/or is vomiting, it’s a more serious situation that needs immediate treatment. Kittens can get extremely sick if they don’t eat for even 24 hours. Visit a veterinarian for help A.S.A.P.!

white kitten with black spot on face (what to feed a kitten with diarrhea)
This sweet foster kitten overcame diarrhea with the right treatment and food.

How to Feed a Kitten with Diarrhea

In general, the best kitten food for diarrhea is a high-quality, easily digestible food that is complete and balanced for the growth phase of life. Some kittens do better with wet food and others need to eat dry food. Your vet can prescribe a specialized gastrointestinal diet if needed.

As a vet, the general approach I take considers what the kitten has been fed over the previous couple of weeks. If they’ve been eating a poor-quality diet, changing to a high-quality diet may be all that’s needed to set things right. 

Be prepared to wait at least 3-7 days to see any improvement. Sometimes it takes a couple of months to resolve chronic diarrhea. Your vet is a good resource for figuring out if you should stay the course or try a different diet. 

As long as the kitten is eating, not vomiting and has a good energy level it’s usually OK to give the new food some time to firm up kitten diarrhea

But what if you’ve already taken your kitten to the vet and treated any health issues identified there and he still has soft stool? My patients will go through a trial with different foods until we find one that works for them. 

They may do better with all wet food, all dry food, highly digestible food, high fiber food or even hydrolyzed protein food. You won’t know what’s best until you start feeding food and give it a good week before switching to a different one. 

*Top Foods I Use for Kittens with Diarrhea

FoodPros/Cons for Kitten Diarrhea
Hill’s Prescription Diet® i/d Cat FoodPros: Highly digestible, contains the right type and amount of fiber to normalize gut bacteria. OK for kittens & available in wet or dry form. Most kittens love the flavor. 
Cons: prescription only, higher cost.
Purina PRO PLAN® Veterinary Diets HA Hypoallergenic Dry Cat FoodPros: hydrolyzed protein won’t irritate food allergies, cats like the taste, OK for kittens.
Cons: prescription only, dry form only, higher cost.
Purina Pro Plan Focus Kitten Chicken & LiverClassicPros: low carb, high-quality protein, non-prescription, wet form, affordable.
Cons: may be hard to find at some times.
Royal Canin® Kitten FoodPros: dry & wet form available, high-quality ingredients, non-prescription.
Cons: higher cost, not sold in grocery stores.

Probiotics for Kitten Diarrhea

Many vets, including me, recommend a course of probiotic supplementation for kittens with diarrhea. There are several good veterinary-specific products including Forti-flora® and Proviable®. 

Forti-flora is good for kittens who are picky eaters because it apparently tastes great. But it only has a single bacteria strain. 

Many experts believe probiotic supplements containing more bacteria strains and more colony-forming units are more helpful for treating diarrhea. Proviable is unflavored but contains several bacteria strains in larger quantities.

Homemade Diets for Kittens with Diarrhea

The average homemade diet prepared by kitten owners is not balanced and may cause serious problems. Short-term use of boiled chicken or turkey meat only is sometimes recommended by vets when commercial diets fail to help.(2)

Any unbalanced diet should never be fed to kittens longer than 7-10 days. Ask your vet to refer you to a veterinary nutritionist for a balanced recipe if you want to use a homemade diet longer than that.  

Summary

Diarrhea is a common problem for kittens. Many improve after their intestinal tract infections are properly treated. Feeding only high-quality kitten food is an important part of firming up a kitten’s poop. 

Some kittens may need a special diet to get their bowels back on track. Consult your veterinarian if your kitten has persistent diarrhea lasting more than a few days. 

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References

  1. Marks, S. L. (2016). Rational approach to diagnosing and managing infectious causes of diarrhea in kittens. August’s Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine, Volume 7, 1.
  2. Marks, S. L., & Willard, M. D. (2006). Diarrhea in kittens. Consultations in Feline Internal Medicine, 133.