Cats may seem famously self-sufficient, but under all that fur their bodies work just like every other species.
They need to urinate and defecate regularly just like dogs and all other animals.
While the majority of cat owners talk more about problems with inappropriate elimination, such as peeing in the house outside the litter box, there is also a danger when a cat holds their pee for too long.
In this article, we learn much more about the feline anatomy and what to expect from your pet cat in terms of their elimination needs. Also discover when holding the urine can be downright dangerous for a pet cat.
How Long Can Cats Go Without Urinating?
If your cat has gone longer than 24 hours without urinating, this is a veterinary emergency. If this goes on for more than one 24-hour cycle, those toxins can start to build up in the body and become dangerous and potentially fatal in short order.
As the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) explains, when a cat is not urinating, the animal is not allowing waste and toxins to escape the body.
Watch a Feline Expert Coach Cat Parents About Litter Box Issues
In this short video, famed cat whisperer Jackson Galaxy shares his tips for decoding why a pet cat might be having trouble with litter box use.
In this case, there was both a behavioral and a medical issue contributing to the cat’s problem behaviors with urinating inside the home.
Why Would a Cat Stop Urinating?
As Banfield Pet Hospital points out, a number of medical conditions could be at the root of a cat’s inability to urinate regularly.
But unfortunately, your cat can’t tell you that they are having problems. Your cat has to rely on you to notice before the situation becomes urgent and dangerous.
Here are the main medical issues that are known to cause cats to be unable to void their bladder effectively.
Bladder inflammation and/or infection
Bladder inflammation and/or infection is often confused with blocked cat syndrome, and the two conditions are frequently treated as one and the same and even called by the same name.
However, as PetMD points out, a bladder infection is an earlier stage of blocked cat syndrome, which we will look at here next.
A bladder infection occurs when bacteria, a pH imbalance, or certain minerals invade the bladder area and cause inflammation, infection, and the formation of crystals.
As the crystals grow, they can develop into blocked cat syndrome.
Cats that are suffering from a bladder infection may still be able to urinate but they may not want to because it is very uncomfortable. So your cat may avoid the litter box for a protracted period of time.
Blocked Cat Syndrome
As Veterinary Partner explains, feline UTI is also known as a feline urologic disorder, FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract infection), feline UTI, bladder stones, and feline interstitial cystitis.
Regardless of the terminology used, blocked cat syndrome occurs when the urethra – that critical superhighway that carries waste matter from the bladder out of the body – gets blocked up.
The block can form from bladder stones or from something called a “matrix” – a mix of proteins and paste-like mucous. Either way, once the urethra gets blocked, the urine just keeps building up inside the bladder.
Cats with early stages of the condition may simply feel a little uncomfortable. Cats in late stages of the condition can die.
And while you might think that a burst bladder is the main health threat, actually it is the buildup of potassium and the heart failure this triggers that is more commonly the cause of death.
Blocked cat syndrome occurs far more frequently in male cats because of how their internal anatomy works. However, in either gender cat, this is a true medical emergency.
Special Needs Cat
As Handicapped Pets explains, when your cat has had a trauma or injury that has affected function in the lower half of the body, your cat may not be able to void on their own.
In this case, you will need to learn how to manually void or express your cat’s bladder. You will need to do this at least four times per day by palpating the bladder until the urine enters the urethra and flows out.
High Stress or Anxiety
As Cat Health Live Journal feline owners forum points out, some cats that are especially high strung or sensitive to change or stress may simply stop urinating for a period of time.
Here are some situations that might trigger a cat to refuse to urinate:
- Being boarded or kenneled.
- A move to a new home.
- The addition (or absence) of a new family pet or person.
- A change of diet.
- An emerging medical condition.
- A change in the daily schedule.
- Sedation (this can cause constipation as well).
Dehydration in Cats
Another often-overlooked reason why some cats will stop urinating is simply dehydration.
The modern domesticated pet cat evolved from wild big cats who were biologically accustomed to getting the majority of their hydration needs from eating whole prey. There is even a scientific term for the feline diet: obligate carnivore.
It means that your cat’s digestive system has evolved over millennia to require a diet of pure animal protein to function optimally.
As VetStreet highlights, many big cats live in areas where water is only available rarely and seasonally.
So your pet cat doesn’t necessarily look at their water bowl and think “I’m thirsty and that is where I should go to get water.” They may not put two and two together on their own.
Even if your cat does understand that the water bowl is there for them to drink from, cats can be notoriously finicky about where, how, and when they drink.
Some cats will only drink if the water is moving or bubbling or running in some way, but will refuse to drink from a “stagnant” water bowl.
Some cats will only drink if they can have their back to something solid so they can look out while they are drinking.
Dehydration doesn’t always occur simply due to a cat’s aversion to the water bowl, however. Because cats have evolved to get most of their moisture from their food, the food you are feeding can also factor into feline dehydration.
For example, if you are feeding all dry kibble, and your cat is not drinking enough water, this is the fastest route to a dehydrated cat.
If you are feeding a mixture of dry kibble and semi-moist or wet food, your cat will be taking in more food-related moisture to keep dehydration at bay. For cats who simply refuse to drink enough water, sometimes a food change is the right remedy.
These behaviors may (and likely do) have an evolutionary reason behind them.
A wild cat might have learned that still (stagnant) water was more likely to be polluted or toxic, and that drinking with their back to the wide-open plains means a predator could sneak upon them.
Here again, your cat can’t talk to you to tell you why they are refusing to drink from their water bowl even when they are thirsty. You will need to try to get inside your cat’s mind and figure out how to fix the problem so your cat feels safe to drink.
The Litterbox Feels Unsafe or Is Unclean
Domestic felines are notoriously picky about where they use the bathroom. Many cats seem to have nothing short of phobias about the size, shape, type, and location of their litterbox.
In fact, according to Fetch by WebMD, up to 10 percent of all pet cats will have a problem with appropriate elimination at some point in life.
Some cats will refuse to use the letterbox if they have access to the outdoors. For some cats, only certain types of litter will prompt the use of the litterbox.
And many cats that are living in a multi-cat family still want to have their own dedicated litterbox. It really just depends on your individual cat what works and what doesn’t.
Here again, it will be your challenge to identify what is causing the extended refusal to use the litterbox and make the appropriate changes so your cat becomes willing to use it again.
As VetStreet highlights, these are five of the most common litterbox mistakes that can cause a cat to refuse to urinate or defecate:
- The litterbox is not clean.
- The litterbox doesn’t offer safety, privacy, or ease of access.
- The litterbox is crowded with other cats.
- The litterbox is too small.
- The litterbox litter is not to your cat’s liking.
Diagnosing the Reason Your Cat Won’t Pee
As you now realize, there are a wide variety of potential reasons why your cat may not be urinating.
The reason may be medical. It may be environmental. It may be behavioral. It may be some combination of the three.
But regardless of the underlying reason your cat has not urinated, the longer this situation lasts, the more serious it becomes for your cat’s health.
You may not notice at first that your cat has not urinated for some time. So by the time you do begin to notice, it is important to consider that some hours may have already passed.
What does this mean for your cat’s health and safety?
It means that you should get your cat to the feline veterinarian right away rather than trying to self-diagnose the reason from home. Failure to urinate for more than 24 hours is so dangerous you can’t afford to wait it out.
Preventative Vet emphasizes that this is a critically dangerous health emergency and your cat does need veterinary care right away.
Warning Signs and Symptoms Your Cat Can’t Pee
While all of the reasons you just read about are legitimate, documented reasons why a cat might go without urinating, the medical reasons are the most common reasons.
This means that there are some initial warning signs you can watch for that can alert you to a building emergency health situation.
These are the most commonly documented warning signs and symptoms that your cat is having trouble urinating normally:
- Whining, howling, or whimpering.
- Hanging out near the litter box.
- Licking at or pawing the genital area or under the tail area.
- Squatting and straining but nothing comes out.
- The bladder (beneath the rib cage) feels swollen, hard, or distended.
- Very small dribbles of urine that may contain blood.
- The cat becomes lethargic.
- The cat starts vomiting or appears very nauseated.
- The cat starts to hide.
- The cat eliminates a little bit but not inside the litter box.
- The cat stays in the litterbox for a long time but doesn’t pee.
While modern pet cats are arguably domesticated to live with people, all animals still retain the survival instincts of a wild animal. These survival instincts say to hide any sign of weakness or illness.
This is why, even though your cat may be in obvious distress, you may also witness hiding behaviors. When the warning signs become very obvious, this is how you can know your cat is in extreme danger.
Medical Treatment for a Blocked Cat
The medical treatment for a cat who is unable to urinate due to blockage is invasive and ongoing.
First, the bladder must be emptied. Usually, this means sedating the cat to insert a catheter so the urine can flow out of the body. After the urine flows out, it is usually necessary to flush the bladder to remove excess residual toxins.
Then the blockage must be removed, biopsied, and remedied. This is a surgical procedure. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see cats that have the procedure get blocked up again in short order and have to repeat the whole thing.
Next, the veterinarian must assess how much systemic damage has been done due to the buildup of potassium and other toxins inside the body. Rehydration with fluids can ease immediate concerns of heart failure.
Other medications or treatments may be required based on the cat’s overall health. Often, the veterinarian will recommend a change of food or home habits to try to boost daily fluid intake and keep pH stable.
The Role Cat Food Plays in Cats Who Can’t Pee
As Dr. Pierson of CatInfo points out, the type of food you are feeding your cat can have a great impact on urinary tract health or lack thereof.
A cat that is fed a diet of exclusively dry kibble will always be more at risk of developing dehydration. Even if your cat is peeing normally, if dehydration is present, there may still be a buildup of toxins that can compromise the heart and kidneys.
There is a big difference between a cat that is not urinating because they literally cannot pee – there is a blockage in the urethra – and a cat that is not urinating because they are not producing enough urine due to dehydration.
However, either case is a life-threatening emergency.
Cat food is the single most overlooked cause of both urinary blockage and urinary dehydration.
As Dr. Pierson describes, the normal whole prey a cat would eat in the wild is comprised of approximately 70 percent water. The normal dry kibble cat food is no more than 10 percent water.
This is a huge hydration imbalance. A simple correction is to simply moisten or soften the dry kibble with broth or water. An alternate correction is to begin feeding wet food instead of dry kibble. Wet food can have up to 78 percent moisture content.
Either way, the more you can encourage your cat to take in enough hydration (water) with food, rather than eating food and then drinking water separately, the less likely you are to have to treat dehydration.
Not all cat foods are alike. Different cat foods are formulated just for kittens, pregnant or nursing mother cats, sedentary cats, high-energy adult cats, large breed cats, small breed cats, or senior cats.
If the cat food you are feeding your cat has the wrong nutrient, vitamin, and mineral balance for your cat’s gender, age, breed, energy level and life stage, this can lead to dehydration, the formation of bladder crystals or stones and/or urethral blockage.
You want to talk with your cat’s veterinarian to analyze the magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium content in the food you are feeding your cat.
Creative Ways to Encourage Your Cat to Take In More Water
As PetMD explains, it is vitally important to make sure that your cat is taking in enough water every single day, whether through food or by drinking water.
The more water your cat takes in, the more the bladder is being flushed out, and the less risk there is of toxins building up or crystals forming.
As well, if your cat is taking in the regular amount of daily hydration but urination suddenly stops, you will be more likely to notice and catch it early so your cat gets treatment right away.
Some cats simply never get used to seeking out water on their own, even if they are dehydrated or feel thirsty.
For these cats, there are some creative things you can try to encourage them to drink. One of the easiest is to flavor the water with something your cat loves.
Tuna water, bone broth, meat juices, or wet food are all good ways to catch your cat’s interest and encourage drinking.
Some cats will start drinking water if the still water bowl is replaced with a cat fountain that bubbles. The moving water often sparks a cat’s interest and playing with the water then turns to drink.
How to Transition a Cat from Dry Food to Wet Food
While wet food is often marketed as “highly palatable” food for cats, this doesn’t necessarily mean your cat will leap at the chance to eat it.
Like all animals, cats are creatures of habit. Any change in their normal daily routine may be perceived as dangerous. This is why veterinarians advise making the switch in stages over at least a week’s worth of time.
For very finicky cats, you can use this trusted formula for helping your cat adjust to eating a different type of food:
- Day 1: mix 10 percent of the new food with 90 percent of the old food.
- Day 2: mix 20 percent of the new food with 80 percent of the old food.
- Day 3: mix 30 percent of the new food with 70 percent of the old food.
- Day 4: mix 40 percent of the new food with 60 percent of the old food.
- Day 5: mix 50 percent of the new food with 50 percent of the old food.
- Day 6: mix 60 percent of the new food with 40 percent of the old food.
- Day 7: mix 70 percent of the new food with 30 percent of the old food.
- Day 8: mix 80 percent of the new food with 20 percent of the old food.
- Day 9: mix 90 percent of the new food with 10 percent of the old food.
- Day 10: offer 100 percent new food only.
You want to make sure and watch your cat closely during this transitional period since there can also be a danger that your cat will simply refuse to eat at all.
In summary, it is absolutely vital to work with your feline veterinarian to make sure your cat is eating the right food, getting enough water daily and able to comfortably urinate whenever the need arises.