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It’s a Pee Thing: Facts About the Feline Bladder

Here's what you need to know about cystitis, a common disorder in cats that affects the bladder.

Dr. Arnold Plotnick  |  Nov 1st 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our September/October 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Where does urine go after it is manufactured by the kidneys? Anyone who has waited in line for the bathroom at a baseball game knows — it’s the bladder!

The bladder is a muscular organ found in the pelvic region of the abdomen. Unlike the multitalented kidney, the bladder has one task and one task only: to store urine. Once the bladder reaches a certain degree of distention, nerves in the bladder send a signal to the brain that it’s time to urinate, and the cat trots off to (hopefully!) the litter box.

Unfortunately, sometimes things can go wrong with the one-man show bladder, and it’s called cystitis. This inflammation of the bladder is one of the most commonly diagnosed feline disorders, and there are many potential causes.

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Photo by Shutterstock

Four causes

Bacterial urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are a common cause. Female cats, longhaired cats, diabetic cats, and cats with kidney disease are at increased risk for acquiring UTIs.

The formation of crystals in the urine (crystalluria) may lead to cystitis. The crystals can irritate the delicate bladder lining, resulting in inflammation.

Bladder stones (cystic calculi) are another common cause of cystitis. Crystals in the urine may coalesce to form a small stone (or multiple stones). The stones usually cause severe irritation to the bladder, and cats often show all of the symptoms in the sidebar, most notably blood in the urine.

Tumors of the bladder do occur. Thankfully, they are an exceedingly rare cause of cystitis in cats.

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Illustration by Brook Wainwright

Diagnosis

Diagnosing the cause of a cat’s cystitis requires a few specific diagnostic tests. The most basic of these are a urinalysis, urine culture, and an X-ray. Ideally, the urine should be obtained in a sterile fashion so that a urine culture can be performed at the same time.

Urinalysis allows us to assess the urine for the presence of red blood cells, white blood cells, and crystals. Sometimes, bacteria are seen microscopically in the urine, confirming a diagnosis of a UTI. However, if bacteria aren’t identified on a urinalysis, it does not mean that a UTI isn’t present.

Culturing the urine is the gold standard for confirming the presence of a UTI. Even if bacteria are seen on a urinalysis, a culture should be performed. A urine culture identifies exactly which bacterial species is causing the infection and which antibiotics would be most effective against it.

An X-ray should be taken to see whether a bladder stone is the cause of the cystitis. Most bladder stones are radio-opaque, meaning that they will be visible on an X-ray.

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Urinary stones! Photo courtesy of Dr. Arnold Plotnick

Treatment

Treatment of cystitis is dependent on the cause. Urinary tract infections are treated with antibiotics. Crystals in the urine can be controlled or eliminated by feeding prescription diets designed for this purpose. These diets are restricted in the minerals that comprise the crystals, and they are formulated in a way that results in the urine having a pH between 6.2 and 6.6, which is ideal for preventing crystal formation.

Bladder stones may have to be removed surgically. However, depending on the mineral composition of the stone, it may be possible to dissolve the stone by feeding a severely mineral-restricted, highly acidifying prescription diet for a few weeks.

Feline interstitial cystitis

Sometimes, when evaluating a cat with symptoms of cystitis, the X-ray shows no stones, the culture shows no infection, and the urinalysis shows no crystals. All the urinalysis reveals is the presence of blood. We call this condition “idiopathic cystitis,” which is a fancy medical way of saying that there is no known cause for the bladder inflammation. In fact, this is the most common cause of cystitis in cats.

In the past few years, it has been recognized that idiopathic cystitis in cats closely resembles a type of cystitis commonly seen in women, called interstitial cystitis. The term “feline interstitial cystitis,” or FIC, is now thought to be a more appropriate term than idiopathic cystitis.

Cat and vet by Shutterstock

Cat and vet by Shutterstock

Feline interstitial cystitis is often the most challenging to treat, because no specific cause has been identified. Over the past decade, however, research at The Ohio State University has revealed that environmental stress often plays a substantial role in the development of FIC in cats.

Indoor cats frequently find themselves without acceptable outlets for their natural instinctive behaviors, like hunting for food, hiding from predators, and scratching. The stress of this lifestyle can manifest in several ways, such as development of FIC. The Ohio State University has developed The Indoor Pet Initiative, a program designed to advise pet owners on how to modify and enrich the environment for indoor cats, alleviating many of the stresses that can lead to illnesses like FIC.

As a feline practitioner, I strongly support the sensible suggestions offered. With stress-related illnesses, preventing the problem from occurring is a much wiser approach then trying to remedy the problem after it becomes established.

Signs of bladder inflammation

Cats with cystitis may show any or all of the signs below:

  • Frequent trips to the litter box (pollakiuria)
  • Straining to urinate (stranguria)
  • Urinating in inappropriate places (periuria)
  • Presence of blood in the urine (hematuria)

About the author: Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is the former Ask the Veterinarian columnist for CAT FANCY magazine, and is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Crispy. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.