Are urinary tract infections common in cats?
While many cat owners may have heard of cats diagnosed with “presumed’ urinary tract infections, the answer to this seemingly simple question is actually a big NO. When looked at overall, especially in younger cats, the incidence of true bacterial infections in cats is actually very low, even when cats have a history of bloody urine, straining and frequent trips in and out of the litter box often producing only small amounts of urine. Yet many vets across the country routinely and inappropriately prescribe antibiotics for any cat with signs of what is more appropriately termed “urinary tract inflammation,” medically known as FUS or feline urologic syndrome. In fact, urine culture studies done on most of these cats have typically shown that bacteria are rarely involved in primary urinary tract inflammation in cats.
While inflammation can lead to the development of mucous, crystals, and sometimes stones (which can be particularly problematic in male cats) and sometimes leading to urinary tract emergency blockages, bacteria are not usually found as a primary cause based on these urine culture studies. In my experience, I’ve found that the over prescription of antibiotics for such a noninfectious condition often leads to worse relapses in pets susceptible to this chronic relapsing disorder, sometimes increasing the likelihood of urinary tract blockages. Despite decades of research and various drug trials from shotgun prescription drugs like antibiotics Amitriptyline, urinary tract acidifiers sedatives such as Buspar or Diazepam, antispasmotic drugs like the old blood pressure medicine Phenoxybenzamine, or powerful narcotics like the recent use of the powerful drug Buprenex, as well as hormonal therapy with progesterone compounds, there have never been any controlled studies that have shown any of these various hit or miss therapies to be statistically effective in helping a large proportion of affected cats.
When I’ve attended lectures given by leading veterinary urologists, I often chuckle when the remark to the veterinary audience is that in most cases simple flare-ups of acute urinary tract inflammation in cats will usually die down on its own within 5-7 days, without any treatment! In fact, researchers have looked at cats afflicted with this disorder as similar to human women with a condition known as interstitial cystitis, where as in feline medicine, conventional drug therapies have a poor or unproven track record with long term and inconsistent results.
There are, however, several steps one can take to help reduce risk factors in helping their cat lessen the likelihood of coming down with this frustrating urinary tract condition. Veterinary urologists who study this complex of urinary tract disorders in cats often list several risk factors for cats in developing feline lower urinary tract disease. Overweight cats that are indoor-only getting very little exercise and on an all dry carbohydrate-based diets are all risk factors increasing the chance at developing this condition. In my own experience, I’ve found pets that are over vaccinated or vaccinated with too many components at one time, are also more likely to develop future urinary tract problems.
The most important step a feline guardian can take in helping lessen the risk is in feeding a species-appropriate wet food or a meat-based diet. Either one of the better natural commercial canned foods such as Pet Guard, Wysong, Azmira or a proper homemade meat-based diet following a balanced recipe. Carbohydrate-based dry kibble diets have never been shown to lessen the risk of tooth decay and free feeding on dry food definitely predisposes to the development of what is called alkaline urine and the increased risk of crystal formation and future trouble. So it’s best to feed cats at set times each day and not allow free access to dry food all day. This also helps cut down on the incidence of obesity in cats and its risks, including diabetes, as cutting down on carbohydrate intake is important for maintenance of not only urinary tract health, but long term health as well. While there are various prescription pet food companies out there who tout their foods as more successful than others, most of the data on these foods come from the pet food manufacturers themselves rather than independent researchers.
There are some natural supplements that can sometimes help manage an acute urinary tract flare-up and/or help as part of a preventative program to prevent relapses. Glucosamine supplements like Cosequin for Cats can help coat the lining of the bladder thus boosting the protective effects of the bladder lining against urinary tract inflammation. UT Soft Chews for Cats has a nice synergistic group of ingredients including the antibacterial mannose, as well as cranberry which acts as an acidifying agent to help prevent bacterial overgrowth of the bladder. The product Cranberry Relief contains Oregon Grape Root, the immune-boosting agent Echinacea Purpurea, as well as vitamin C, all which can help strengthen urinary tract defenses against urinary tract inflammation. I’ve also found Tinkle Tonic, made by Animal Essentials, a wonderful combination of western herbs that can help quickly reduce inflammation in affected cats.
By following some of the tips and advice here and taking the steps to become truly informed about urinary tract conditions in cats, it can help cat owners make well informed decisions on if and/or how to treat their cats. Plus, it can also help with the most appropriate questions to ask one’s veterinarian as opposed to just agreeing to unproven therapies.