I thought I might write a few words about this sticky subject after seeing a particularly unfortunate case the other day.  Minty is a slightly grumpy, independent and strong-willed 15 year old cat who until a week ago, had been ageing gracefully.  She had lost a bit of weight and done a bit of vomiting, and had the occasional faecal ‘accident’ inside the house. But she was eating well and seemed well in herself, though she usually kept herself to herself.  The owner went away for the weekend and left Minty some dry food and water down as she had done many times before to no ill effect, but when she returned home on Sunday evening she noticed that something was wrong – Minty was crying in the litter tray.  When she looked inside, she realised that Minty hadn’t actually defecated at all in the past few days.  When I saw her the following day, Minty was dehydrated and I could feel a large, hard mass of stool in her colon.

X-rays showed that her condition was quite severe, so we anaesthetised her and performed an enema, manually removing some of the stuck faeces and softening what remained.  We also gave her some IV fluids to rehydrate her, and lots of pain medicine as both the procedure and the condition can be very painful.  Fortunately for Minty, she recovered well from her anaesthetic and within a few days started to pass stools on her own again with the help of some other medications.  But if it hadn’t been caught and treated when it was, it could have been a very different outcome.

What causes constipation in cats?

In Minty’s case, the cause ended up being dehydration, as a result of kidney disease that hadn’t previously been diagnosed.  A blood test done at the time of her anaesthetic picked up on the condition (which hadn’t been noticed at home due to the cat’s independent lifestyle).  Dehydration causes the stool to become firm and more likely to get stuck on the way out.  But other causes include neurological or muscular disorders or pain (such as arthritis) which prevent the cat from being able to defecate normally.  Tumours or other masses can obstruct the intestine and cause constipation, as can pelvic fractures which cause the space between the pelvic bones to narrow.  Behavioural issues can affect defecation as well, as a cat that is uncomfortable with their environment may put off defecating longer than is healthy.  Rarely, other diseases like hypothyroidism or even some drugs themselves can result in constipation.

How do you know if your cat is constipated?

This can actually be trickier than it sounds!  Many cats will defecate exclusively outside so you may never see their faeces or watch them defecate.  Even those that will use a litter tray tend to do so when nobody is around.  So it’s an easy condition to miss until the situation becomes quite desperate as in Minty’s case.  Signs to look out for include:

  • Hard, dry stools
  • Smaller stools
  • Less frequent stools
  • Difficulty defecating
  • Pain (sometimes displayed as a loud howl but not always) whilst defecating
  • Vomiting and loss of appetite in severe cases
  • They may also make repeated trips to the litter tray without actually producing anything, but it’s often hard to tell whether they’re unable to urinate or defecate (and it’s important to make the distinction as being unable to urinate for a male cat is a medical emergency!).  And if they’re severely constipated, they can actually produce liquid stools that look like diarrhoea, just in case it wasn’t complicated enough…

    What should you do if you think your cat is constipated?

    If you think your cat’s stools are looking different or you think they’re having problems urinating or defecating, ring your vet for an appointment.  They’ll take a feel of the abdomen and may be able to feel a large mass of faeces stuck in the colon.  If they suspect constipation, they may run a series of tests such as x-rays to see the extent of the problem, along with blood and urine tests to try to find out why it happened in the first place.  If the problem is severe, your cat may need to be anaesthetised for an enema to remove the impacted stools (one of the highlights of our day, I assure you!), or they may use a smaller type that doesn’t require anaesthesia.  The vet will then discuss with you some of the things that you can do to help prevent a relapse of the condition.  Some cases, however, are so severe that they’re actually classified as ‘megacolon’ which is just as it sounds – the colon stretches so large that it isn’t able to work as a muscle anymore to push the faeces out.  In this case, surgery and/or lifelong medication may be required, or even euthanasia if treatment fails to give them any relief.

    How can you prevent it?

    If your cat is prone to constipation, or if you have noticed any of the above symptoms, your vet may recommend one of several different treatments that can be used to prevent the problem from recurring.  One is also a hairball remedy – a flavoured paste that contains soft paraffin to help things move along – that cats generally don’t mind taking.  Another is a liquid that makes the stools softer, but cats don’t tend to like the taste very much.  Other remedies are available, but may be harder to get a hold of so aren’t as common, your vet may look into this further if necessary.  However, one of the very best and easiest things you can do to prevent constipation is to stop feeding dry food and switch to a wet cat food.  This will increase the amount of water in their diet significantly and help prevent dehydration.  There are other ways to encourage your cat to drink more, such as flavouring their water or adding even more water to their food along with making sure there is always lots of fresh, clean water available throughout the house.  It’s also important that the litter tray is kept as clean as possible to encourage them to use it frequently.  And of course, you’ll also want to address any underlying medical condition that may have contributed to the constipation.

    In most cases, constipation is a mild, temporary condition that responds to simple changes in diet or gentle medications, especially if caught early, so if you think your cat might be affected, be sure to speak with your vet right away.

    If your cat is constipated please contact your vet for advice. If you are worried about your cat but not sure it needs to see a vet please click here.