Constipation is the infrequent passage of hard and dry stools. There are no set number of bowel movements a cat must take in a day, but one to two is fairly average. Constipation can affect cats of any age although it is seen more commonly in middle-aged to elderly cats.
Chronic constipation can lead to a condition known as megacolon, in which the colon becomes abnormally dilated and enlarged and lose its ability to contract. This may ultimately lead to obstipation, which is a complete blockage.
What are the causes of constipation?
- Dehydration: Water is reabsorbed from the colon and if the cat is dehydrated, the body will try to conserve water by removing additional water from the stool.
- Reluctance to defecate due to behavioural issues. Dirty litter trays, not wanting to share a litter tray or go outside (if it's raining or cold).
- Obstruction of the colon. There are many possible causes of obstruction including birth defects, hairballs, tumours, polyps, foreign object.
- Dietary: Diets which are low in fibre can cause constipation. Eating food containing hair and bones can cause a blockage.
- Drugs and medications: Antihistamines, diuretics, painkillers and antibiotics are some drugs which can cause constipation in the cat.
- Painful defecation: Causes include impacted anal glands or perianal bite abscess.
- Neurological: Including damage to the nerves in the colon and anus, spinal cord injury, paralysis.
- Pelvic injuries from car accidents which lead to fractures narrowing the pelvic canal.
- Metabolic/hormonal: Low potassium (hypokalemia), kidney failure, diseases of the thyroid and parathyroid glands.
- Idiopathic. Sometimes it is not possible to find a cause of constipation.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
As one would expect, the most obvious sign of constipation is straining in the litter tray. After a period of straining, the cat may pass a small amount of watery feces, or small hard/dry feces, he may cry in pain as he attempts to defecate. As the condition progresses other symptoms may include:
How is constipation diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you.
Abdominal palpitation will reveal a hard and full colon.
X-ray of the abdomen and pelvis to assess the size of the colon and to determine the extent of impaction and check for foreign objects.
If cancer is suspected, endoscopy and biopsy may be performed.
Routine serum biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis to check for underlying systemic disorders such as kidney disease or diabetes mellitus which could cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
How is cat constipation treated?
Mild cases of constipation without accompanying symptoms such as vomiting or depression may be treated on an outpatient basis at home by giving your cat extra fibre or stool softeners.
More severe cases may require an enema or manual extraction of the feces.
Rehydration with intravenous fluids and prevention of future dehydration.
If possible, find and remove the cause of constipation such as:
Litter trays: Ensuring there are an adequate number of litter trays and they are cleaned out regularly.
Cancer: Surgical removal of tumours and/or chemotherapy/radiotherapy.
Blockage: Surgery to remove any blockages and/or increasing fibre, giving stool softeners to assist with defecation.
Dietary: Feeding a high fibre diet.
Drugs or medications: If possible, stopping any medications or adding extra fibre to the diet while the cat is on the drugs.
Anal glands/abscess: Treating abscess or impacted anal glands by emptying, applying antiseptic/antibiotics to the area and oral antibiotics.
Hypothyroidism: Hormone replacement therapy (thyroxine).
Low potassium: Oral or intravenous potassium replacement.
Kidney disease: Dietary management (low protein), phosphorous binders, and supportive care.
Home treatment for cat constipation:
Adding bulk to the diet can assist in mild cases of constipation. Unprocessed wheat bran or Metamucil are recommended. Add approximately 1 teaspoon of unprocessed wheat bran or Metamucil per 475g canned food.
Pumpkin is also a good way to prevent constipation occurring. It is high in fibre and has a high water content, both of which help to keep bowel movements regular. Add 1-2 teaspoons of canned or cooked pumpkin to your cat's daily meal.
How can I prevent constipation?
Removing the cause if at all possible is the best course of action. This includes:
- If your cat is prone to hairballs, you should speak to your veterinarian about special hairball diets available for cats.
- Frequent brushing to reduce the amount of hair swallowed.
- Regular treatment for parasites.
- Adding fibre such as pumpkin or flax seeds to the diet.
- Make sure your cat has access to clean, fresh drinking water at all times.
- Increasing water consumption. Switching your cat to a wet diet, encouraging him to drink more.