Dogs and cats are prone to a wide range of health problems, and while many are not generally life threatening, they can be a huge burden on your pet’s quality of life. Urinary tract infections are one of the most common health problems for both dogs and cats, particularly in older animals.
In fact, UTIs are the most common infectious disease in dogs, affecting almost 14 percent of all dogs at some point in their lifetime. What causes urinary tract infections in dogs and cats, and what can you do to reduce the risk of them ever happening?
Understanding Urinary Tract Infections in Pets
UTIs are painful infections that can happen anywhere throughout your pet’s urinary tract. Humans can get them, too. In all cases, they are caused by bacteria, fungi, or parasites that enter the urethra and spread throughout the urinary tract, which includes:
- The kidneys, which remove waste and excess water and turn them into urine
- The ureters, which transport urine from the kidneys to the bladder
- The bladder, which stores the urine until it reaches a certain level, at which point your pet feels the need to pee
- The urethra, a small tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body
In your pets, infections usually happen when your pet’s immune system is already compromised by a different disease or health problem.
Urinary tract infections can be painful and uncomfortable, but when left untreated, they can pose some serious complications to your pet’s health and even potentially lead to death. Urinary tract infections are generally more common in dogs than cats. Thankfully, most urinary tract infections can be treated once they’ve been detected.
What Causes Urinary Tract Infections in Dogs and Cats?
Urinary tract infections in pets are most often caused by fecal contamination, sometimes from the environment but often from your pets own fecal matter as it makes its way out of the system. The most common bacterial culprits are E. coli, staphylococcus, proteus, and streptococcus.
Infection of the urethra is called urethritis. When the infection spreads to the bladder, it is known as cystitis. Infection of the urethra and the bladder is considered a lower urinary tract infection. If it spreads up to the kidney, your pet may experience more serious symptoms that could be much more life threatening.
Your pets may also suffer from non-bacterial urinary tract infections. These can be caused by certain viruses, algae, parasitic worms, mycoplasma, and fungi, including:
- Cryptococcus neoformans
Earthworms may carry the larvae of small worms known as Capillaria plica, which can infect the bladder and, less commonly, the kidneys and ureters. Your dog or cat may accidentally eat an earthworm with these larvae. Dicotophyma renale, or giant kidney worms, can also infect the kidneys and may come from eating raw fish, frogs, or earthworms.
For some cats, vets believe stress can trigger a urinary tract infection, causing a disorder similar to human interstitial cystitis.
Common Symptoms of UTI in Dogs & Cats
The signs and symptoms of urinary tract infections are varied. Some dogs with lower urinary tract infections may not even exhibit signs, though most do. The most common signs of dog UTI include:
- Difficulty urinating or straining to urinate
- Hematuria, or bloody urine
- Urine that is cloudy, discolored, or exceptionally smelly
- A frequent need to urinate but in very small amounts
- Breaking housetraining (i.e., sudden accidents despite being previously well-behaved)
- Frequently licking the genital area
- Crying out or whining while urinating
Symptoms of cat UTI include:
- Frequent trips to the litter box with very small amounts of urine
- Urinating outside the litter box
- Blood in cat’s urine
- Straining in the litter box
- Thick, firm, contracted bladder wall, which your
With some cases of urinary tract infection, your cat’s urethra may be blocked by crystals, stones, or other masses, leading to pain when urinating. Many pet owners mistake this for constipation when the cat is actually dealing with a painful, potentially life threatening issue. In extreme cases when the urinary tract has been completely blocked off, your cat may become depressed and unresponsive or even potentially die.
Detecting urinary tract infections can be difficult. The best thing you can do is to stay observant and take note of any abnormal urinating habits.
Risk Factors for Urinary Tract Infections in Dogs and Cats
Urinary tract infections are more common in dogs, particularly female dogs because they have shorter, wider urethras, but both cats and dogs can potentially succumb to an infection. Some other common risk factors for UTI in cats and dogs include:
- Weight: Overweight pets with more skin folds have a higher risk of contracting an infection.
- Immune system: Some pets with weakened immune systems, including older pets and those with dental diseases, may be more prone to urinary tract infections.
- Physiology: Female pets with inverted vulvas can lead to greater bacteria buildup and secondary urinary tract infections. Conditions that change the anatomy of the genital area can similarly put your pet at a higher risk of UTI.
- Chronic diseases: Certain chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, and Cushing’s Disease, can lead to urinary tract infections.
- Immunosuppressive viruses: Cats with FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) or FeLV (feline leukemia virus) have compromised immune systems, so they may be more susceptible to urinary tract infections.
- Obstructions: Bladder stones, kidney stones, crystals, and other obstructions to urine flow increase the chances of bacteria spreading throughout the urinary tract.
- Medication: Long-term use of corticosteroids can also increase risk of UTI.
Diagnosing Urinary Tract Infections in Cats & Dogs
Diagnosing a urinary tract infection often begins with a urine sample. Your vet can analyze a urine sample for the presence of white blood cells, a sure sign of infection. Finding crystals in the urine points to possible bladder stones. Bacteria can often hide on these stones, meaning the stones will have to be removed in order to completely cure an infection.
The urinalysis is followed by a urine culture, which allows the vet to not only verify the infection, but also identify the bacteria responsible for the infection. Without a urine culture, which generally takes a few days, your vet cannot properly treat the condition. They wouldn’t know what antibiotic to prescribe or if it’s even necessary.
Urine cultures can also provide more in-depth information. For example, bladder infections in male pets are rarer because the male urethra is much longer. This often points to a more serious underlying issue, like parasites, a kidney or prostate infection, or stones. Your vet may use x-rays and ultrasounds along with urine cultures to identify any underlying conditions for treatment or management.
Treatment for Canine and Feline Urinary Tract Infections
Most urinary tract infections are treated using antibiotics over the course of 10 to 14 days. Pets with recurring UTIs may have to take antibiotics for up to three or four weeks longer. This is where identifying the right bacteria becomes important.
Some bacteria can actually grow resistant to antibiotics, which is why many vets won’t prescribe antibiotics until they know the exact cause of the infection. While your pet should show signs of recovery relatively soon, it’s important to give the full course of an antibiotic regimen to ensure the bacteria are completely neutralized.
In cats, most cases of urinary tract problems don’t involve bacteria, which makes antibiotics unnecessary. Instead, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory and pain relief medications as well as agents that can soothe the bladder. You may also consider administering a cannabinoid supplement, like Canna-Pet, if you are looking for a natural alternative.
If the vet found stones or crystals in your pet’s urinary tract, your pet will likely require long-term diet changes that can keep the urine at a consistent pH level to reduce chances of stones forming again. Larger stones will require surgery.
Why Do Some Pets Have Recurring UTIs?
Recurring urinary tract infections can point to:
- Bacteria becoming resistant to the chosen antibiotic
- An underlying condition
- The presence of another disease, including diabetes
Tests can help to determine if it’s the same bacteria causing the infection. X-rays, chemistry panels, and a complete blood count can help the vet understand why the infection is recurring or why it is unresponsive to the chosen treatment.
Tips for Preventing UTIs in Dogs and Cats
Simple preventative measures can keep you from ever having to worry about your dog or cat ever suffering from urinary tract infections. Some things you can do to keep UTIs at bay include:
- Provide plenty of fresh, clean water. Keep your pets hydrated to make sure they pee regularly. This flushes bacteria out of your pet’s system, ensuring it never spreads throughout the urinary tract. Urinating also washes away crystals before they can clump together and form stones.
- Encourage frequent urination through exercise and walks
- Reevaluate your pet’s diet. Based on your vet’s suggestions, consider adjusting your pet’s diet to maintain a consistent pH and discourage the formation of stones. Maintaining your pet’s weight can also prevent urinary tract infections and other health problems. Consider adding probiotics to your pet’s diet. These are “good bacteria” designed to displace foreign bacteria and improve the way your pet’s immune system responds to potential infections.
- Make sure your cat’s litter box is easily accessible and cleaned regularly. If you have more than one cat in your home, consider adding additional litter boxes to prevent potential cross-contamination of fecal-born bacteria.
- Maintain a clean environment for your pet.
Most importantly, keep an eye out for any abnormal urinary habits or changes in your pet’s behavior. As a pet owner, you probably know better than anyone when your pet might be acting strangely or feeling under the weather. It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your pet’s health.
Early diagnosis of urinary tract infections often makes the treatments more effective, alleviates pain almost immediately, and keeps the UTI from turning into an even more serious problem.