Constipation in cats
Every veterinarian, cat breeder or animal welfare professional who works with cats will tell you that keeping an eye on the litter tray is one of the most useful things you can do to keep your cat healthy. Although the contents of the litter tray are not very pleasant, they give valuable information about how your cat is doing. Even an unused litter tray can say a lot. For example it may tell you that your cat is constipated.
Constipation is not uncommon in cats and it becomes more prevalent as a cat gets older. Constipation by itself is not a disease, but it is a sign that catís digestive system is not working as it should.
In this matter, as with so much else about cats, each cat is an individual. So there is no fixed rule about many bowel movements a healthy cat should have per day. This varies from cat to cat but one or two is regarded as the norm. Constipation should be suspected when a cat has very infrequent bowel movements, when the cat visibly strains while in the litter box, and when there is a significant decrease in the amount of stool produced.
What causes constipation?
There are many reasons why a cat can become constipated. Those include diet, environmental changes, blocked bowels or painful defecation; for example because of of hemorrhoids, or an abscess following a cat bite and so on. Even stress can bring it on.
Some cats get very fussy about their litter tray and will not use it if it is not cleaned regularly. Sometimes they will find an alternative toilet, but sometimes a cat might simply stop going. Also as a cat gets older it exercises less. (Particularly as older cats might suffer from conditions which might make them less active - e.g. rheumatic disease, obesity or diabetes.) With reduced exercise, bowel movement may become slightly less regular and over time this may develop into constipation.
Because cats are compulsory carnivores (cats must eat meat or die), a catís diet is based on meat with a limited amount of fiber. So a normal catís stool is naturally quite dry and hard. If additional cat hair, a bone or some other foreign material gets embedded within that stool, it can easily cause an obstruction in the bowel. The most common bowel obstruction is a large hairball - especially with a long-haired cat. Also if your cat has suffered a pelvic fracture, this may have healed poorly and is restricting stool movement through the intestines. A growing tumour is another possible cause of constipation.
Because cat scat is already naturally quite dry, any dehydration in a cat can also cause dry stool to become constipation. This is common in cats with kidney problems, but also if a cat doesnít have an adequate supply of water during the hot summer months. Generally speaking, having a source of clean drinking water available is always a good idea, and particularly important if your cat is on a dried food diet.
Untreated chronic constipation can result in a distended colon which further slows the passage of feces. Fecal matter which remains inside the bowels can create a pouch in which it remains, getting steadily drier and harder. This condition is known as megacolon, and the feces eventually becomes a concrete-like mass which can only be removed through surgery.
Symptoms of constipation
Sometimes it is not that easy to notice that a cat has constipation. With an indoor-outdoor cat, an unused litter tray might simply mean that the neighbourís newly-planted flower bed has become the more attractive option (in which case you have a different problem). However, if your cat starts showing signs of pain, becomes lethargic and frequents the litter tray with no result, or has visible signs of strain while trying to defecate, it is time to visit the vet. Remember that cats are masters at hiding pain or discomfort, so if you even suspect that your cat has not had a bowel movement for several days, you need to consider the vet.
As well as getting the background story and doing a physical exam, your vet may require other tests such as a blood test for underlying kidney problems. A calcium and potassium imbalance can lead to the weakening of the muscles - including in the bowel. If colon cancer is suspected, the vet will want to look at the colon. This is called a colonoscopy, and is done using an endoscope or by the vet taking a sample from a suspect area.
The first step is to get the pressure off the bowels. This can be done by an enema which puts a glycerin infusion into the colon. Re-hydration with intravenous fluid may also be necessary. If the vet suspects that the stool has dried and formed a tight-packed mass, the dried feces may have to be removed by surgery. (The same thing can happen to humans. Immediately after the death of Elvis Presley news reports circulated that he had died from an untreated bowel blockage.)
A cat which is prone to constipation needs a dietary and medical regime. A high fibre diet is normally very successful in treating constipation because the fiber absorbs water. This softens the stool and makes it easier for it to pass along the digestive tract. Remember to increase the fiber intake gradually, and preferably when the current bout of constipation is cleared. Otherwise there is a risk that your cat will end up with trapped wind behind a bowel blockage, which is painful and dangerous. Some specially formulated high fibre cat foods will do the job, but so will canned pumpkin for any cat are prepared to eat it. (Try flavouring it with some of the catís favourites.)
There are also prescription medicines; lactulose softens the stool, and propulcid speeds up the movement of the bowels. Ranitidine is another medication with a similar effect.
The main thing to remember about constipation is that this can be both serious in itself, and a symptom of something serious. However, sometimes it is simply something that happens to a cat, just as it happens to a human. DO keep a careful eye on a constipated cat, and contact your vet if the constipation continues or if the symptoms get worrying. DONíT try to use your own home-made solutions or medication. Cats may be people, but they are not humans. What works on a human metabolism can be dangerous or even fatal to a cat.
Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.