How to Manage Cat Constipation

cat constipation
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Constipation is an uncomfortable condition that can affect humans, cats, and other animals. Cat owners may not realize anything is wrong until their cats become obviously distressed or sick. By learning how to recognize and treat constipation, you can help get your cat prompt relief from constipation or even prevent it in the first place.

What is Cat Constipation?

Constipation is a condition in which a cat cannot properly evacuate stool from the bowels. It can result in a backup of stool in the colon that slows the gastrointestinal tract and causes discomfort. Constipation in cats may be acute (sudden) or chronic (ongoing). Chronic constipation may come and go over time. If you think your cat is constipated, it's important to seek veterinary attention.

Signs of Constipation in Cats

  • Frequent litter box trips with no stool production
  • Straining to defecate
  • Small, hard, dry stools (may have some streaks of blood)
  • Defecting outside the litter box (stools are typically still hard and dry)
  • Diarrhea (due to liquid stool passing around hard stool stuck in the colon)
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive salivation (typically due to nausea)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Distended abdomen
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Vocalization, especially when attempting to defecate
  • Weight loss (more often seen with chronic or long-term constipation)
  • Lethargy or depression

If you notice these or other signs of illness in your cat, be sure to contact your veterinarian for advice.

Causes of Cat Constipation

There are several potential causes of constipation in cats. One or more of the following may cause or contribute to cat constipation.

  • Matted hair around the anus can cause constipation by blocking the exit for the stool. This is the first place you should look if you notice constipation in your cat. You may be able to remove the mat yourself. Otherwise, a veterinary professional or a cat groomer can help.
  • Diet affects the stools of cats, so a poor diet may lead to constipation.
  • Dehydration limits the ability of the intestines and colon to move waste through the GI tract, potentially leading to constipation.
  • Obesity is a known risk factor for constipation in cats, especially if the cat is rather sedentary. This is because physical movement promotes bowel motility, and many overweight cats do not get enough exercise
  • Chronic kidney disease may lead to constipation because of the dehydration that is common in cats with this condition.
  • Obstructions in the GI tract can keep a cat from properly passing stool. This may be caused by ingesting a foreign body or even swallowing excess hair while grooming.
  • Megacolon is a condition that prevents the colon from moving stool the way it does in a healthy cat. It is believed that this condition affects the muscles of the cat's colon. The exact cause of megacolon in cats is unknown.
  • Neurological conditions or trauma may damage the nerves and/or muscles that regulate bowels.
  • Medications may cause temporary constipation in cats.
  • Litter box avoidance may cause a cat to hold stool until it becomes too impacted to pass. This may be related to behavioral issues (fear, anxiety) or even a painful condition like arthritis that makes it difficult to get in a comfortable position to defecate.

Treatment of Cat Constipation

Treatment may vary depending on the underlying cause, but the ultimate goals are to remove backed-up stool, give the cat some relief, and prevent recurrence.

When you bring your cat to the veterinarian for suspected constipation, your vet will discuss your cat's history and perform a physical examination. They may be able to feel the stool through the abdomen when it is palpated, but this is more challenging to do in overweight cats.

Your vet may recommend abdominal radiographs (X-rays) to get a visual of the colon and intestines and determine just how much stool is backed up. Radiographs may reveal underlying causes for constipation like megacolon or obstruction.

Fluid supplementation is an important part of treating constipation in cats. Fluids may be injected under the skin to be absorbed slowly so that your cat is fully hydrated. Sometimes hydration alone is enough to treat constipation.

In mild to moderate cases of cat constipation, your vet may prescribe a laxative or stool softener to help your cat defecate. Your cat may be able to pass stool again a day or two after starting the medication.

If a large amount of stool is seen in the colon on radiographs, your vet may recommend an enema. This is done with a warm solution that is placed into the colon via the anus. The solution loosens the stuck stool and lubricates the colon so the stool can be more easily evacuated. Most cats will have a large bowel movement right after an enema and may be able to return home the same day (often on medications).

Obstipation, a severe form of constipation, may be diagnosed if your cat has extreme stool backup. Deobstipation is a procedure done under sedation that involves manually removing stool with gloved hands. This is typically only necessary in very severe cases.

Your vet may recommend a diet change or supplements to prevent the recurrence of constipation. This is especially needed if your cat has experienced chronic constipation.

How to Prevent Constipation in Cats

You can help prevent constipation in your cat in a few ways. First, consider the basics of cat care. Feed your cat a diet that is complete and balanced. Ensure your cat has access to fresh water at all times. Feeding wet food can definitely help maintain hydration and is often recommended over dry food as the healthier choice for all cats. In addition, keep your cat at a healthy weight and make sure they get plenty of exercise.

Bring your cat to the vet if you suspect constipation for more than 24 hours. See your vet sooner if your cat is vomiting or seems very uncomfortable or lethargic. With help from the vet, you may be able to relieve mild constipation before it becomes severe.

If your cat has chronic kidney disease or another condition that may lead to constipation, it's important to make sure the condition is well-managed. Be sure to take your cat to all recommended veterinary follow-up visits. Comply with your vet's treatment instructions and contact your vet at the first sign of trouble.