What Are Urinary Crystals?

TUES OCT 30 2018

This article is written by one of our in-house veterinarians, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc.

Has your pet been diagnosed with urinary crystals or urinary stones? Unlike humans, crystalluria (crystal formation in the urine) is very common in pets. Both cats and dogs can experience crystals in their urine, however we tend to see more issues in cats. In some cases, crystals can lead to a life-threatening obstruction in the urethra, restricting outflow from the bladder. (If you've ever heard someone refer to a 'blocked cat' - this is what they're referring to.

But what are urinary crystals? You might wonder how your pet even got these crystals; Did they drink a magic potion causing their insides to turn into a sparkly Swarovski-like cave of wonders?

Urine is a byproduct from blood filtration through the kidneys. It consists of around 95% water, with the remainder consisting of mainly salt, nitrogen, protein, minerals and toxins. Under certain conditions, these many different substances can solidify to become urinary crystals.

What conditions cause crystals to form? There are many factors that affect the formation of crystals including chemical concentration, acidity or alkalinity of the urine, temperature, diet, infections, and other disease processes. Although the presence of some urinary crystals can cause problems or indicate an underlying disease process, certain crystals can also be found in normal urine from healthy animals.

What are the Symptoms of Urinary Crystals in Cats and Dogs?

  • Urinating more frequently, often in smaller amounts
  • Straining to urinate
  • Frequent squatting
  • Urinating in inappropriate places
  • Blood in the urine
  • Pacing
  • Increased vocalization or calling out when urinating
  • Increased thirst
  • Reduced appetite
  • Lethargy

Consequences of Urinary Crystals

If crystals aren't treated, they can grow and bind together to create urinary stones, also known as bladder stones or uroliths. These stones cause a lot of irritation and can make it difficult for your pet to urinate. In some cases this stone can cause urinary blockage which is a medical emergency.

If your pet is displaying any of the symptoms listed above, or if you suspect they may have a urinary blockage it is essential to seek immediate veterinary attention. While urinary crystals do not always lead to stone formation, they are certainly a major risk factor.

Common Types of Urinary Crystals and Predisposed Breeds

1. Struvite

Struvite crystals are a mineral consisting of ammonium, phosphate and magnesium. They are colourless prisms formed in neutral to alkaline urine and are often seen in normal urine, however they can also be linked with disease. Bacteria associated with urinary tract infections can increase ammonia concentration which is favourable for struvite formation. Many breeds are predisposed to these crystals including Miniature Schnauzer, Miniature Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, Bichon Frise, Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu.

2. Calcium Oxalate

Calcium oxalate crystals are clear and shaped like square envelopes. They can be found in normal urine at any pH. Calcium oxalate stones are more common in male adult purebred dogs like Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers and Bichon Frises. Mature Himalayan and Burmese cats also have a hereditary predisposition. In addition calcium oxalate stones can be associated with diseases resulting in excess cortisol production (hyperadrenocorticism) and elevated blood calcium (hypercalcaemia).

3. Cysteine

Cysteine crystals are made of a sulfur containining amino acid. They appear flat, colourless and are hexagonal shaped and form in acidic urine, often associated with a high protein diet. Cysteine crystals are more commonly seen in Newfoundlands, Dachshunds and English Bulldogs.

4. Ammonium Urate

Ammonium urate crystals are yellowish-brown in appearance and can be spherical or have thorn-like protrusions. They may occur in normal urine and are frequently seen in Dalmations and English Bulldogs.

How are crystals diagnosed?

Your vet will likely have a strong suspicion of crystalluria based on your pet's symptoms. The first step towards diagnosis of urinary crystals involves a complete urinalysis. Your vet will be able to examine your pet's urine under a microscope and visually observe if crystals are present. A dipstik test will also be performed, as this will help your vet determine the acidity of the urine as well as the presence of any blood or infectious cells and bacteria. In some cases x-rays may be indicated, occasionally with special dyes. Ultrasound of the bladder and kidneys may also be required.

How are urinary crystals treated?

Your vet will first treat for any emergency conditions, such as a bladder obstruction. If your pet has large stones, surgery may be required. If other conditions are present, such as cystitis or infection, your pet may receive antibiotics and pain relief.

Once these conditions are under control, you can focus on reducing the crystals in the urine. The course of action depends on the stone present. Some commonly occurring crystals, such as struvite, can be treated by feeding your pet a special prescription diet which either dissolves the crystals (and stones if present), or prevents the crystals from forming by making the urine more acidic. Prescription diets can also increase your pet’s water intake to ensure there is improved urinary volume and outflow.

Some crystals like ammonium urate can be managed with special medication, while others like calcium oxalate that have progressed to stone formation will require a surgical procedure to break down or remove the stone.

Which prescription urinary diet is best? The 'best' urinary diet for you depends completely on what kind of crystal is present. There are actually a few different therapeutic urinary diets, and many of them are only indicated for one type of crystal. For instance, Hills Prescription Diet s/d is ideal for dissolving struvite stones, but Hills Prescription Diet u/d is indicated for urate stones. If your pet receives the wrong urinary diet, it may actually make the crystals worse. Therefore, it is vital that you have your pet's urine examined and await instruction from your vet, before choosing a prescription diet.

How Can Urinary Crystals Be Prevented?

Urinary crystals have the potential to cause your pet pain and discomfort, and in some cases even make them gravely ill. Although some cases are unavoidable, there are preventative measures you can take to protect your pet, particularly if they are a breed known to be predisposed to urinary crystals and stones.

1. Avoid Cheap Pet Food

One of the causes of urinary crystals is a poor quality diet, particularly in cats. So it's extra important not to give into temptation and buy the cheap, poor quality supermarket food - you may end up paying much more in vet bills in the long run!

Always ensure that your pet is fed a high quality, scientifically formulated diet that is proven to support a healthy urinary tract, such as Advance LUTD Cat.

Try A Premium Diet Instead:

(Please note that the below diets are 'everyday' diets, and are not intended for treating existing urinary issues. If your pet has urinary issues, your vet may recommend a prescription diet for them..)

Advance LUTD Cat

This super premium, Australian-made dry cat food is clinically proven to reduce the risk of lower urinary tract disease (LUTD) through controlled levels of minerals and the promotion of slightly acidic urine.

Royal Canin Urinary Care

With balanced levels of dietary minerals, this diet decreases urine pH, creating an environment that is unfavourable to the development of urinary crystals and stones.

Hills Science Diet Dog Food

Hill's Science Diet Dog Food Formulas all provide precisely balanced, high quality nutrition to keep your adult dog happy and healthy.

Pro Plan Dog Food

Pro Plan's premium line of dog food is made from high quality ingredients, and contains all the essential nutrition to keep your dog in great shape with a healthy urinary tract.

2. Keep them hydrated

If your pet is hydrated, their urine will be less concentrated, which reduces the formation and growth of crystals. There are a number of ways to increase their water intake - such as feeding wet food and providing running resh water with a drinking fountain.

3. Budge the pudge

Obesity is one of the main predisposing factors to urinary issues, particularly in cats. If your pet is a little pudgy, you can reduce their risk of urinary issues dramatically simply by getting them down to a nice slim bodyweight. Plus, this will also help decrease their risk of arthritis, digestive issues, pancreatitis, and diabetes! You've got nothing to lose, except the excess weight!

Read about easy ways to help your pet lose weight with Dr Teagan's article Obesity in Pets.

4. Regular vet checks

Your pet's annual or bi-annual health check is also a great opportunity to check that everything is going smoothly. If your pet has a history of urinary issues, you may choose to test their urine regularly by bringing along a fresh urine sample in a clean container. This allows your vet to quickly and easily check for the presence of urinary crystals, as well as red and white blood cells, bacteria and other abnormalities.