My cat is squatting repeatedly in his litter tray as though he’s trying to urinate, but he doesn’t seem able to go. What can I do?

Right, this one is serious – see a vet as an emergency. Cystitis in people is often an unpleasant stinging sensation when they urinate, but in a male cat it can be life-threatening.


Cystitis? Really? How?

Cystitis simply means inflammation of the bladder. The lining of the bladder becomes inflamed and painful, but in cats the urethra sometimes gets blocked as well.


The urethra?

That’s the tube that takes urine from the bladder to the outside world (the tip of the penis). It’s a long tube, and a thin one, and can spasm (close up, tightly) with pain or stress. It can also get blocked by little stones, or rarely by a small tumour. In any event, it acts like a blocked pipe; urine cannot leave the bladder. The bladder is like a small balloon with two small inflow pipes (ureters), one from each kidney. If urine keeps flowing in but cannot leave through the urethra, the bladder becomes bigger, thickened, and painful. The pain can often cause the urethra to close up tighter; it’s a vicious cycle. Once the bladder is as full as it can get, urine starts to back up the ureters to the kidneys. If the back-up gets as far as the kidneys, the kidneys can become damaged and can even fail. Meanwhile, as you can imagine, all of this is excruciatingly painful for the cat.


Oh no! How long have I got? Can this wait for my favourite vet tomorrow morning?

No. This case really should be seen immediately. If your cat is blocked, further action will be needed. What makes it worse is that the kidneys control the potassium levels in the blood, and if the kidneys are backed up with urine, the potassium levels in the blood will rise. This can cause a rapid heart-rate and other complications, which are also extremely serious and can be fatal if not treated.


You’re not painting a very positive picture here

Are you on your way to the vets? It really is very serious. The good news is that cats often do survive, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to act.


So why did this happen to my cat?

Back when I was at vet school, they used to think that black and white cats were predisposed to this. But now it’s thought to be stressed cats (and it just so happens that black and white cats suffer a lot from stress)!


So my cat’s at the vets. What happens now?

Very often, the vets will give relaxant drugs and pain relief to try to encourage a tom to urinate. He may well receive a full anaesthetic to have a catheter – that’s a very thin tube – inserted via his penis to hold the urethra open for a few days. He will almost certainly have a drip because that high potassium I mentioned earlier can be fatal, so it’s important to get the fluid balance in the body right again.


Is there anything else I need to know?

Now that we know that stress is involved in cystitis, your vet may be able to talk to you about how to help your cat feel less stressed. The points I make here are based on the advice of Dr Sarah Caney, founder of the vet professionals website and one of the experts in this area of feline medicine.


Do I really need this? My cat doesn’t seem stressed….

Cats aren’t very honest with their owners about these things. You know how some people don’t show on the outside how they’re feeling? There are stressed cats just like that.


What sorts of thing stress cats out?

Not being able to access the litter tray (for instance, because they hate being watched, or don’t want to walk past another cat’s territory to get there, or it’s too small, or is difficult to get into or out of), other territory issues, dogs, being shut in – all kinds of things. Your vet or a behaviourist may well be able to help.


Is there anything else we can do to protect a cat’s bladder?

Increase your cat’s water intake. However, cats can be particular about where they drink, so you may need to be quite cunning. Try different dishes / receptacles and try putting them in different places. Try providing a water fountain or, if all else fails, soaking their biscuits in water might increase their water intake a little bit. I would actually advise doing this anyway, whether or not your cat has had a bladder problem.

Also – how many cats are in your household? If they don’t get on, you might need to ensure that each cat gets its own space. Cats’ social interactions are complex: there should be more litter trays than there are cats because litter trays are an important resource to cats – and take notice if one cat doesn’t use one. Maybe they need one screening off, or putting in a different room. Or perhaps they’d like to urinate outside, in which case they’ll need access, preferably without having to sneak through the territory of another cat…


What about special foods?

Yes! These can certainly be a good idea and your vet will be able to explain more about the ones they prefer to work with. However, these are no substitute for stress management or ensuring ample water intake.


Where can I read more?

Sarah Caney is one of the experts on this particular subject and for more information, I would advise that you check out for more information.