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Pet parents have a special bond with their cats, and after spending so much time together, they start to learn what their cats need or want when they hear a meow or feel a paw gently bat their arm. They may even begin picking up on their cats’ bathroom habits — and when those habits start to change or become concerning.
More frequent visits to the litter box — even without any other obvious signs of problems — can indicate a health issue, one of the most common of which is bladder stones. Bladder stones in cats can lead to significant complications, so prompt diagnosis and treatment are vital to the cat's health.
Bladder stones are small, rock-like formations that occur in the bladder. They’re also known as cystic calculi or uroliths.
The stones, which consist of minerals, can range in size and number. A cat may have a single large stone or several tiny ones. Usually, when a cat has several, they take some months to develop, while others may only take a few weeks.
Regardless of the size, bladder stones in cats are dangerous. Larger ones may periodically block the flow of urine. Smaller ones can travel through the urethra and possibly cause a partial or complete obstruction. In such situations, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the cat to urinate. A complete blockage is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical care.
A cat’s urinary system filters blood and removes waste, as well as some excess vitamins and minerals. Minerals can crystallize if the urinary system isn’t properly processing them or if there’s a high concentration of them in the urine. They have a rough texture, and they can move around in the bladder, irritating the walls.
Irritation can lead to the production of sticky mucus inside the bladder. Over time, the mineral crystals get trapped, resulting in stones.
There are a few reasons why crystals (and subsequently, stones) occur in the bladder. Factors that can play a role include:
The pH of the urine is off
The presence of excess proteins
Untreated bladder stones can lead to several potential issues. For one, cats with stones have a greater risk of developing urinary tract infections (UTIs). If the stones block the urethra, the cat won’t be able to urinate. This can lead to cat digestion issues such as nausea, vomiting, and appetite loss, as well as a distended stomach. Urine may back up into the kidneys. There’s also a risk that the cat’s bladder may burst.
Cats are very good at hiding when they’re in pain. Even so, there are a few symptoms that pet parents might notice that can point toward bladder stones. Some of the most common include:
More frequent urination (pet parents may notice their cat spending more time than usual in the litter box)
Straining to urinate/dysuria
Blood in the urine/hematuria (the cat’s litter may have a pinkish tint to it)
Urinating outside of the litter box, despite being housetrained
The symptoms of bladder stones in cats are similar to symptoms of other inflammatory issues that affect the bladder. If a pet parent notices any of the signs, they should schedule an appointment right away.
Vets can diagnose bladder stones with a few different tests:
Palpitation: A vet can sometimes feel larger bladder stones by gently pressing on the cat’s abdomen. However, they won’t be able to detect smaller ones.
X-rays: Most bladder stones are visible on X-rays. Some don’t reflect the beams, though, and won't be noticed.
Ultrasound: Ultrasound imaging of the bladder may show stones that aren’t visible on X-rays.
There are two main ways to treat bladder stones in cats:
A cystotomy is the quickest treatment. The routine procedure involves opening the bladder to physically remove the stones. In the case of a complete blockage, surgical intervention is crucial.
Some cats respond well to food that’s specially formulated to dissolve bladder stones, which can avoid the need for surgery. However, the process takes longer. That means the cat is still at risk for infections and blockages. Additionally, some cats might not take to the new food. Pet parents should consult with their vet for guidance.
One of the biggest ways to prevent bladder stones is to ensure their cat has access to plenty of fresh water. They may even consider switching to wet food to help the cat get more moisture in their diet.
For cats that have already had bladder stones, a vet may recommend a specialized diet based on the chemical composition of the stones present. Routine wellness exams that include a urinalysis can also help detect potential issues before they become severe.