Constipation, which is an abnormal amount of stool in the colon, is something that is relatively common in cats. There are some at-home therapies but veterinary care may be required in some cases.
Causes of Constipation in Cats
Constipation can be a problem for your cat all on its own, or it can be a symptom of another medical issue that your cat may be suffering from. The main job of the colon (also called the large intestine) is to reabsorb water from fecal material that is passing through. Sometimes this can make stools dry, hard, and difficult for your cat to pass. Constipation is a problem most commonly seen in middle aged to senior or geriatric cats. A constipated cat will have less frequent bowel movements or no bowel movements at all. You may also see your cat straining to defecate but only producing a small amount of liquid stool. Some may jump to the conclusion that this is diarrhea, but what is actually happening is that your cat is straining to defecate so much that they are propelling liquid stool around the formed stool before the colon has a chance to reabsorb the water content. Constipation can be caused by different ailments, such as hairballs, obesity, irritable bowel disease, dehydration, gastrointestinal disease, spinal disease or arthritic pain, tumors, and even electrolyte or hormonal imbalances.
One severe condition with constipation in cats is megacolon. Megacolon is exactly what it sounds like—the colon becomes overly dilated and the muscles become weaker. It can be a primary condition, meaning it is what is causing your cat's constipation, but it can also be secondary to your cat's constipation. If your cat struggles with constipation because of another cause, such as obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, spinal problems, etc. repeated episodes of constipation can cause megacolon in your cat.
It's important to realize that a lot of the issues that can cause constipation in cats can cause concurrent symptoms. So if your cat is struggling with constipation you may also see things like decreased appetite, weight or muscle loss, difficulty with getting in and out of the litter box, or lethargy.
Talking to your veterinarian is very important to do if your cat is constipated or prone to getting constipated. Here are some things that may help cats who are prone to constipation (however, these do not take the place of veterinary care): keeping track of your cat's litter pan daily so you know exactly when it goes and can monitor them; increasing your cat's water intake, either with water fountains or by feeding your cat wet food rather than dry food; keeping your cat fit and trim; regular brushing and grooming, especially in long haired breeds, can help deter hairballs that can contribute to constipation; feeding your cat a high fiber or hypoallergenic diet as recommended by your veterinarian; and creating a litter box with a low entry door and starting them on joint supplements as recommended by your veterinarian. This can help ease any arthritic pain that may make it difficult not only for your cat to get into the litter box, but to also get into the position to defecate.
If your cat hasn't had a bowel movement in two to three days, your cat's constipation may require veterinary intervention. When you bring your cat to the vet for constipation they will first palpate your cat's abdomen to feel how much stool is built up in the colon. They may also want to take radiographs (or X-rays) to confirm constipation in your cat. Once your vet confirms that your cat is struggling with constipation, they may want to give your cat a special pet enema to try and help your cat along. Some cats also need fluid therapy, either subcutaneously or intravenous, to replenish fluid loss and correct any electrolyte imbalances from their constipation. Your vet may also give your cat an injection of an anti-nausea medication as they may vomit from straining after the enema. Some cats that are prone to megacolon may require surgery depending on the situation.
Your vet will also be able to recommend long-term medical management for your cat's constipation. They can start your cat on a stool softener to help make them easier to pass or prescribe your cat a high fiber diet. Constipation is a relatively common problem for cats, so if your cat is struggling, your vet can help both of you.