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Many cats experience some form of constipation at one or more times in their lives (not unlike many of us humans!)
Owners often post on our forums, wondering if their cat may be constipated and asking about what they may do about it.
That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide which will tell you what constipation in cats really is, what you need to do if your cat becomes constipated, and perhaps most importantly, how to prevent it from happening.
What is constipation and what are its symptoms?
The term “constipation” is used to describe one of the following situations:
- A cat that passes stools less often than once a day.
- A cat that experiences straining and pain when passing stool (this is also known as tenesmus).
- A cat that stops passing stools altogether (this is a blockage and is also known as obstipation).
In all of these conditions, fecal matter stays in the colon for longer than it should. When this happens, water is absorbed back into the body through the walls of the intestines making the trapped fecal matter drier, harder and more painful to pass out through the delicate rectum. Sometimes feces become so hard they simply can’t make their way out. This is when severe constipation becomes obstipation and the cat is “blocked”.
Is my cat constipated?
Identifying constipation in a cat that uses the litterbox is relatively easy as owners can monitor the frequency and types of stools. Pay attention to your cat’s stools. Often, constipation sets in gradually and you may note a decreased frequency of defecation along with smaller and harder stools. This is yet another good reason why you should clean the litterboxes at least daily!
In a multi-cat household, where boxes are shared among several cats it can be more difficult to tell which cat has a change in litterbox patterns. In this case, you may notice one of the cats seems to be straining more than usual when defecating and possibly expressing pain by meowing loudly. Look for other changes in behavior too. Constipation is a painful condition and the afflicted cat is likely to avoid movement and its posture may be hunched, with a lowered head. Read more about possible signs here: 35 Signs That Your Cat May Be In Pain.
Straining in the litterbox and what appears to be pain during an attempt to defecate could in fact be related to urination. Cats – especially male ones – can develop a partial or complete blockage in their urinary tract or urethra. This is a medical emergency! Urgent medical care should be provided immediately or the cat could die within hours. If you see your cat straining and in pain while using the litterbox, call your veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately for help.
What causes constipation in cats?
As described above, anything which makes feces stay inside the colon for longer than necessary can in itself cause constipation. There are also other conditions that cause the fecal matter in the bowels to become harder and drier than it should be. With that in mind, common causes include –
1. Behavior-related litterbox avoidance
Any behavioral problem that keeps your cat from using the litterbox can cause constipation. Your cat may avoid the litterbox because it’s too dirty, or because he or she doesn’t like its location or the type of litter used. Issues of territorial aggression in a multi-cat household can lead to a sense of insecurity when in the box and make some cats avoid it altogether. Possible causes for behavior-related litterbox avoidance are discussed in the following articles:
How To Choose The Right Litterbox
How To Choose The Right Cat Litter
Litter Box Location Secrets
2. Pain induced by another medical condition
Anything that would make using the litterbox painful for your cat can make her or him use it less frequently, eventually leading to constipation.
Possible sources of such pain include abscesses around the anus and impacted or infected anal glands. It’s not just the anal area though. Cats use their paws extensively when in the litterbox. This is why paw injuries and trauma (such as following declawing) could cause a cat to avoid the litterbox and eventually lead to constipation. Arthritic pain is another possible reason for a cat to avoid the litterbox due to the pain associated with climbing into a litterbox and using those painful joints for digging.
Last, but not least, any pain or overall sickness can make bathroom trips too much of a hassle for a cat, eventually leading to the fecal matter drying up in the colon and to constipation.
3. Diseases and physical trauma
Some diseases and conditions can directly affect the digestive system and bring on constipation. In these cases, constipation is a symptom of a more serious illness that must be diagnosed and treated. These include some types of thyroid disease and kidney disease.
Cancer or benign tumors in the colon can cause constipation, as can obstruction by either a foreign object which the cat may have swallowed or even a large hairball.
In other cases, injuries to the pelvis and lower spine (including the base of the tail) can affect the cat’s ability to contract the muscles of the bowels and cause mobility problems and constipation. Even after the injuries have healed, deformities in the bone can make defecation more difficult.
Last, but not least, there is a rare condition known as idiopathic megacolon. This is where the walls of the colon are enlarged and stretched to the point they lose motility. It’s a possible risk of chronic or severe constipation (to be discussed later in this article) but it can also happen on its own and develop as a primary disease of which constipation is a symptom. When there is no known cause for megacolon and it develops without a prior history of chronic severe constipation it’s referred to as idiopathic megacolon.
Some cats tend to drink less and can become chronically dehydrated. It may not visibly affect their behavior but can have long-term effects on their kidneys and urinary system. It can also cause fecal matter to be drier and harder, thus leading to constipation.
5. Dietary imbalances
Feeding an unbalanced diet can cause constipation (as well as other medical problems). A deficiency in certain nutrients such as fiber and fatty acids can cause difficulty with passing stool.
A nutritionally-balanced commercial diet making up at least 90% of the cat’s food intake should be enough to create regular bowel movements. However, feeding too many treats or table scraps can cause constipation or diarrhea (and is also associated with far more serious health risks). The same is true of feeding a homemade diet if not using a complete and balanced recipe.
What are the risks of constipation in cats and when should I take my constipated cat to the vet?
If you simply observe a decrease in the frequency of bowel movements or harder than usual stools but your cat is otherwise healthy and shows no other symptoms, you should discuss this with your veterinarian at your next scheduled appointment.
The following scenarios require urgent veterinary care and you should call your vet right away to schedule an emergency appointment –
- Your cat has stopped producing feces altogether for two days or more.
- You notice signs of straining and pain during the use of the litterbox.
- There are other accompanying symptoms such as a visible injury, vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite and signs of noticeable pain.
When in doubt, always call your veterinarian and ask for a phone consultation. Your vet will ask you a few questions which will help her or him to determine the degree of urgency.
Acute constipation and obstipation (a complete blockage of the colon) can be life-threatening to your cat. Left untreated, the walls of the colon may expand to the point where bacteria emanating from the fecal matter can cross over the wall of the colon and move into the bloodstream, leading to an overall body infection and sepsis.
Even mild constipation can have dire consequences if left untreated for a long period of time. The constant pressure on the walls of the colon can in itself lead to an extreme dilation of the colon, sometimes to the point of generating an irreversible structural change. This is known as megacolon and may require surgery to fix.
How will my vet treat constipation in my cat?
Your veterinarian will ask you to describe your cat’s problem and will conduct a physical examination including feeling the abdomen and assessing his or her level of dehydration.
- Blood tests
- Urine tests (to rule out urinary tract issues and kidney problems)
- A more thorough physical exam under sedation
- X-rays and/or ultrasound or other radiographic tests
- A colonoscopy (where a digital camera is inserted into the colon of an anesthetized cat for an internal look)
Mild constipation may be treated with rehydration, usually with subcutaneous fluid therapy, and recommendations for a change in diet.
If the cat suffers from obstipation and cannot pass stool, your veterinarian will relieve the blockage by manually extracting the hard fecal matter or by using an enema to soften the stool and cause it to be released. These procedures are usually done under sedation. They may also try using one of several types of laxatives. Some veterinarians prefer to keep the cat in the clinic so that they can carefully control a gradual administration of laxatives.
Please do not try any of these measures at home! Never use an enema on a cat at home without having been previously trained by your veterinarian and under direct instructions to do so. Never manipulate your cat’s anus in any way as you could cause serious injury. Laxatives could easily kill your cat, even OTC ones. They are safe only under the guidance of a veterinarian who has examined the cat, assessed the need for their use and adjusted the dosage accordingly.
How can I prevent constipation from happening or recurring?
The ways to prevent constipation are as numerous as the possible causes.
If your cat went through an episode of constipation, your veterinarian should tell you what he or she suspects to be the possible source of the problem and suggest the necessary lifestyle changes to prevent a recurrence.
The following guidelines provide safe ways to reduce the risk for constipation in any cat –
Make the litterbox appealing to your cat.
Litterbox avoidance is one of the reasons cats become constipated. Cats prefer to go in the box, as long as it’s clean and suitable for their needs. Any problems with the litterbox are likely to make the cat “hold it” until she or he can locate an alternative spot. This pattern can soon lead to dangerous constipation.
If you suspect your cat may not be happy with your litterbox setup, you must become an expert on the topic and improve the situation so that Kitty can go to the bathroom happy and on time. See more about litterbox setup here –
How To Choose The Right Litterbox
How To Choose The Right Cat Litter
Litter Box Location Secrets
Feed a balanced and complete diet.
Choose commercial cat food that offers a quality balanced diet. You can check our cat food reviews for recommendations from TCS members or ask the Cat Nutrition Forum for advice. If you choose to feed a homemade diet make sure you stick to a reputable recipe. Limit the intake of treats and other off-menu foods. Read more here: Unbalanced Diets – Are You Killing Your Cat With Kindness?
Some cats who suffer from chronic constipation may benefit from supplementation with fiber or certain oils. Discuss these with your veterinarian first. Supplementing can be risky when used in the wrong cases. For example, adding fiber or oil to the diet of a cat suffering from a physical intestinal obstruction will not help and could in fact make things worse.
Encourage your cat to drink more.
Dehydration could lead to constipation as water leaves the bowels to go to other areas of the body where it is needed. Increasing a cat’s fluid intake could help. One way to increase daily fluid intake is by feeding more canned cat food. You can find more tips and ideas in this article: Tips to Increase Your Cat’s Water Intake.
Keep your cat safe and healthy.
Consider keeping your cat indoors-only, safe from car accidents and other causes of severe injuries. Make sure your home is safe too so that your cat doesn’t end up ingesting a foreign object. Monitor your cat’s overall health and watch for early signs of constipation or any other health issues. Early treatment can help avoid constipation due to illness or injury.
Follow these simple guidelines to help Kitty live a long and happy life, free from constipation!
If you’re looking for more advice and support, post a thread about your cat’s constipation problem in the Cat Health forum.