A cat fecal exam is a microscopic test performed on poop to detect infection from parasites. These tests are key to your cat’s annual wellness exams because they can help diagnose many gastrointestinal conditions. Some of these parasites can spread to humans, so regular testing is important for your family’s health.
Once or twice a year, your vet will ask you to collect and carefully store your cat’s poop and deliver it to the vet for analysis. This low-cost test usually takes 30 minutes to an hour to complete if it’s done in-office, or one or two days if it’s sent to a lab for testing.
Explained below are some types of parasites a fecal test can uncover and the best ways to collect, store, and deliver a stool sample.
What Does a Fecal Test for Cats Check for?
Fecal tests can detect parasites that frequently infect a cat’s gastrointestinal system, which can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, unexplained weight loss, lethargy, poor appetite, swelling, or just general irritability.
In many cases, symptoms of a parasitic infection may be mild or nonexistent, which is why regular fecal testing is so important. Different parasites can also cause similar symptoms. Common parasites that can be identified through a stool sample include:
- Roundworms are parasites that move within the intestines and cause the disease ascariasis, which can result in abdominal swelling, in addition to intestinal issues such as diarrhea, weight loss, and vomiting. Roundworms can grow to 10 to 12 centimeters and may lead to rupture if untreated, especially in kittens or weakened cats.
- Hookworms get their name from the shape of their head and mouth, which hooks into the gastrointestinal lining to feed on blood and tissue. They can cause black, tarry stools in addition to the common symptoms listed above. Healthy cats with just a few worms may not show any symptoms.
- Giardia is a single-cell parasite (protozoan) that is common throughout the world. As with other parasites, infection can occur through water, food, or soil. Diarrhea is the most common symptom, and you may notice your cat excessively grooming their anal region as a result. This is a common cause for reinfection.
- Coccidia is also a single-celled parasite, and one that almost all cats will encounter during their lives. Healthy cats will often eliminate the parasite on their own without showing any signs of illness. Young kittens and older cats with impaired immune systems are more at risk for illness. Coccidia causes many of the same symptoms as other intestinal parasites.
- Tapeworms are very common and, unlike most parasites, can be seen without a microscope. You may notice dried, white or cream-colored pieces in your cat’s feces or stuck on their fur under their tail. Other signs of tapeworm infection include licking or biting the anal region and “scooting” on the floor. Tapeworm infection usually does not cause weight loss.
Some parasites can be hard to find because they do not shed eggs regularly, so repeated tests may be needed for a diagnosis.
How Much Does a Cat Fecal Test Cost?
The cost for a fecal test can vary from $20 to $50, depending on location and your veterinarian. Pet insurance will usually cover this type of test when a veterinarian considers it medically necessary.
How Often Does My Cat Need a Fecal Test?
Veterinarians generally recommend performing a fecal test at least once a year for healthy adult cats. The frequency may be higher for kittens, cats with health issues, or those otherwise at higher risk (such as cats that spend time outdoors).
Kittens are at higher risk for parasitical infection and may need to be sampled every 2-3 weeks for their first 5 months. Your vet may request a stool sample for each visit.
How to Collect a Cat's Stool Sample
Collecting the stool sample is a simple, if not especially glamorous, procedure. However, it is very important to collect a “fresh” sample for the most accurate results. This means waiting for your cat to perform their business and then collecting the stool, which increases the likelihood of detecting an infection.
Older feces likely will be contaminated or may already contain eggs and larvae that have changed to a point where a fecal test cannot detect them. For instance, diarrhea should be collected immediately after defecation and be free of cat litter, which can result in a “false negative” result. This means an active infection is occurring, but the test failed to detect it.
Collect about 3 to 4 grams – about the size of a Hershey Kiss or sugar cube. A fresh sample will look moist and shiny. Stool with a dull, flat appearance is probably too old.
Once collected, try to take the sample to the veterinarian immediately. You can store it in a container in the refrigerator, but it should be delivered within 24 hours. For collection and storage, you can use any of the following:
- Plastic gloves and a small, clean plastic container or sample cup provided by the vet
- Clean, unused plastic sandwich bag
- Poop bags (this makes it easier to pick and invert to store the sample)
How Is a Fecal Test for Cats Done?
When a fresh sample of feces is delivered, a fecal test can be performed in one of three ways:
- Smear test. A piece of stool is placed on a glass slide to be examined under a microscope. The stool is mixed with a stain to make it easier to identify the parasite.
- Passive flotation test. This method uses a solution that causes parasite eggs to float up from the stool sample. Fecal matter is placed in a test tube with special solutions that gradually separate eggs from the feces. The solution is then examined under a microscope.
- Fecal centrifugal test. As part of a flotation test, a centrifuge may be used to shake more eggs from the stool sample. In this step, the test tube of fecal matter and solution is spun at high speeds (1200 rpms) for a few minutes, and then the solution is examined.
- What Constitutes a Proper Fecal Examination? WSAVA 2002 Congress. Veterinary Information Network.
- Haller J. The Veterinary Nurse’s Guide to Fecal Flotation Techniques. Today’s Veterinary Nurse. 2022.
- Hendrix C. (2022, July 7). Parasitology. Merck Veterinary Manual; 2022
- Hascall K, Kass P, Saksen J, Ahlmann A, Scorza A, Lappin M, Marks S. Prevalence of Enteropathogens in Dogs Attending 3 Regional Dog Parks in Northern California. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2016:30(6):1838-45.
- Herrin B, Moore M. Fecal Centrifugation. Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. 2018.
- Knoll J. Procedure for centrifugal fecal flotation. DVM360. 2010.
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