Defining Constipation in Cats
Constipation is the infrequent, incomplete or difficult passage of feces from the colon, also called the large intestine or large bowel. The colon is the terminal end of the digestive tract.
It starts with the cecum, which is a dilated pouch at the end of the small intestine, and includes the rectum, which adjoins the anal canal. The colon is the main area where digestive waste products are concentrated and stored.
Water normally is reclaimed from those waste products, forming the final fecal end product. Most cats defecate once or twice daily. If a cat only defecates every two to three days, digestive waste material remains in its colon, becoming increasingly hard and dry.
Constipated cats strain to pass feces, with little if any fecal output. This is called “tenesmus”. Cats with colitis, urethral blockages or feline lower urinary tract disease can also show signs of straining; these conditions should be ruled out before treatment for constipation begins.
Causes and Preventing Constipation in Cats
Causes of Constipation in Cats
Constipation is a fairly common problem in domestic cats. The causes of this condition are many and varied. They include behavioral and environmental things, such as sudden changes in a cat’s household routines, household members or daily activities, lack of enough exercise and dirty litter boxes.
Dietary indiscretion (so-called “garbage gut”) is a major cause of constipation in dogs, but not so much in cats. Some cats do get constipated by eating indigestible things, like paper, poultry bones, fabric, pieces of rugs, plastic, rubber, metal, pebbles, sticks, leaves or grass.
Cats are especially prone to becoming constipated from dehydration when they don’t have free access to or drink enough water. They also can become constipated from swallowing hair from their daily rigorous self-grooming activities, which causes hairballs (accumulations of fur and food products) to build up in their digestive tract.
Constipation can be caused by hormonal abnormalities, pain in the pelvic area from trauma or arthritis, spinal disk disease and injuries or masses that adversely impact the colon, such as polyps, anatomical deformities or cancer.
Anal gland infections, rectal foreign bodies and bite wounds around the cat’s rear-end can interfere with normal bowel movements and contribute to constipation. Certain drugs impair the contractility of muscles in and around the colon, and certain food products increase the chance of a cat becoming constipated.
Cats that are obese, dehydrated, elderly, inactive or stressed may defecate less frequently than normal, which predisposes them to constipation and colonic impaction. Cats with chronic renal failure often are constipated. Some cats get constipated when the fur around their anus becomes tangled and matted, which causes a physical barrier to the passage of “poop”.
A condition called “megacolon” can also contribute to constipation. Cats with this disorder have abnormally large colons that can’t contract and move fecal material forward like they are supposed to.
These cats need lifelong treatment with stool softeners, motility modulators and special diets, of course under the supervision of their veterinarian. Cats that are born without a tail, such as members of the Manx breed, are prone to getting constipated from developmental abnormalities associated with their tail-less condition.
Preventing Constipation in Cats
Cats are especially vulnerable to becoming constipated because of their constant grooming activities, which cause hair to accumulate in their digestive tract and “clog up the pipes”.
The best way for owners to prevent this is to brush their cats frequently and use an oral hairball preventative. Keeping the fur trimmed around the anus can prevent matting from forming a physical barrier to passage of stool. Good hydration is essential.
A healthy diet and moderate activity also promote regularity. A veterinarian can teach owners how to palpate their cat’s abdomen to assess whether and to what extent it has retained fecal matter.
Chronic constipation is uncomfortable and can permanently damage the sensitive lining of the colon. Owners of constipated cats should consult with their veterinarian to determine the best diagnostic and treatment protocols.
Symptoms and Signs of Cat Constipation
Effects of Constipation – From the Cat’s Point of View
Constipated cats, like constipated people, feel bloated and uncomfortable. They typically squat and strain while they are trying to defecate, and often have little or no successful results to show from their strenuous efforts.
Their fecal material becomes hard and dryer the longer that they are constipated, which makes it increasingly harder to pass. The constant straining, which is medically referred to as “tenesmus,” often causes the cat’s anus and the surrounding area to become red, inflamed, swollen and painful. Sometimes, after repeated attempts to pass a bowel movement, a small amount of hard dry stool may come out, with or without being accompanied by a loose liquid fecal discharge.
Symptoms of Constipation in Cats – What the Owner Sees
Severely constipated cats can have a number of different symptoms. Owners may notice one or more of the following signs if their cat becomes constipated:
- Straining to defecate (“tenesmus”), with little or no successful results
- Passage of small amounts of rock-hard, dry fecal material
- Passage of small amounts of greasy loose stools around hard, dry fecal balls
- Passage of small amounts of bloody loose stools around hard, dry fecal balls
- Excessive vocalization while attempting to defecate, caused by painful impaction
- “Scooting” the hind end across the floor, carpet or ground
- Licking and/or biting at the anal area
Cats that have prolonged or chronic constipation may also develop one or more of the following symptoms, in addition to those mentioned above:
- Loss of appetite (inappetence; anorexia)
- Weight loss
- Abdominal bloating
- Reluctance to play
- Exercise intolerance
- Rejection of favored food treats
- Red, irritated, inflamed anal area
While mild constipation often resolves on its own, severely constipated cats almost always need veterinary attention. If left unattended, the colon of constipated cats can become impacted, and even completely blocked, with fecal matter, which makes it difficult if not impossible for the cat to defecate.
This creates a potentially life-threatening condition called “obstipation”. Obstipation in cats, and in other companion animals and people, is a medical emergency that requires veterinary treatment on an inpatient basis.
Cats at Increased Risk
Severe constipation and obstipation are reported more frequently in middle-aged and older male cats. The reason for the gender association isn’t well-understood. Domestic shorthairs, domestic long hairs and Siamese cats are predisposed; the reason for this breed association also remains a bit of a medical mystery.
Cats, like people, periodically suffer from constipation. This condition can be caused by diet, dehydration and/or drugs, but sometimes it is the result of an underlying medical condition that has never been previously diagnosed.
The symptoms of constipation are uncomfortable and often painful for affected animals. Companion cats will be thankful and relieved if their owners recognize and find an effective solution to this unpleasant, annoying problem.
Diagnosing Cat Constipation
Owners who suspect that their cats may be constipated should consult with their veterinarian to determine whether the cat indeed is constipated and, if so, why that condition has developed.
The veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination and take a complete history from the owner about the cat’s overall health and why the owner thinks that constipation may be the problem.
The history will cover the cat’s appetite, normal and/or abnormal recent behavior, diet (including any recent dietary changes) and last known bowel movements, among many other things.
The veterinarian probably will take blood, urine and stool samples for laboratory analysis and will perform a digital rectal examination. The results of these routine blood and urine tests are usually fairly unremarkable when constipation is the only problem that the cat has, although they can disclose underlying systemic medical abnormalities.
The fecal samples may reveal internal parasites and/or excessive accumulation of hair, both of which are common contributors to feline constipation. The rectal examination may or may not disclose an obstruction from dry, hard, impacted fecal material, depending upon where the blockage is in the cat’s colon.
In most cases, the next diagnostic step will be to take radiographs (commonly called “X-rays”) of the cat’s abdomen and pelvic region. An abdominal ultrasound may also be advised.
These diagnostic procedures can reveal physical impactions in the small and/or large intestine that are preventing the cat from passing its stool normally. Medication and dietary changes also may be used as diagnostic techniques.
This involves treating the cat with anti-inflammatory or antibiotic drugs, and/or modifying the components of its diet, to see how it responds to treatment. If its bowel movements return to normal after one or both of these treatments, then a bacterial infection and/or food allergies may be presumed to be the cause of the constipation episodes.
Owners should recognize that prolonged constipation can be extremely dangerous for cats. It is important for affected animals to be seen by a veterinarian, diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible, once the possibility of constipation surfaces.
Treatment of Cat Constipation
Goals of Treating Cats with Constipation
The goals of treating constipation in cats are to clean out the colon, reestablish the cat’s normal hydration, correct any identifiable underlying cause of the condition and, hopefully, prevent it from recurring in the future.
Treatment Options for Cats with Constipation
The treatment options for constipated cats depend on why the cat became constipated in the first place. If an animal is only occasionally and mildly constipated, dietary supplementation with high-fiber, bulk-forming ingredients such as flax seed, wheat bran, rice bran or canned unsweetened pumpkin can be quite helpful in moving things along.
Administration of laxatives, and giving one or more enemas, may also be recommended by the cat’s attending veterinarian to “clean out the proverbial pipes”. Good supportive care – with appropriate intravenous or subcutaneous fluid therapy, electrolyte supplementation, pain management drugs, anti-inflammatory medications and possibly antibiotics – can be quite helpful to constipated cats, again depending upon the underlying cause of their condition.
Owners can increase their cats’ water intake (and help resolve dehydration) by feeding canned or soft food instead of or in addition to kibble. Canned cat food is much higher in water content than dry kibble, and it is difficult if not impossible to force a cat to drink water when it chooses not to.
Other ways to increase a cat’s hydration status are to add beef or chicken broth, or even water, to their dry food diet. Cats with moderate to severe constipation may need to be put on prescription medication, in addition to fluid management and dietary changes.
Stool softeners, lubricants, laxatives, suppositories and drugs that promote large intestinal motility and movement of stool are all available. Some of these products shouldn’t be used in cats that have intestinal obstructions, so they should always be used under a veterinarian’s supervision.
Most constipated cats should be encouraged to be active and move around a bit, which can help “unclog the pipes.” When constipation is caused by an impaction in the colon, the situation can deteriorate rapidly and become a real life-threatening emergency.
Abdominal surgery may be necessary to remove the source of the impaction and save the cat’s life. These cats will need to be hospitalized for at least a few days following surgery.
Prognosis for Constipated Cats
Constipated cats have a variable prognosis, depending upon the cause of their condition. In most cases, medical attention, supportive care and regular follow-up management will relieve the cat of its discomfort, with a fair to excellent long-term prognosis. Of course, if constipation is caused by cancer, an anatomical abnormality or some other underlying medical disorder, the prognosis will be more guarded.
Cats with mild constipation usually can be treated symptomatically by modifying their diet and increasing their water intake. Moderate to severe cases may require prescription medications and/or enema treatments, in addition to dietary and fluid therapies. Sometimes, surgery may be necessary to remove impacted fecal matter that is preventing the cat from evacuating its colon.