Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Intestinal obstructions can be partial or total. In partial obstructions, the cat may exhibit subtle signs or intermittent signs, whereas in total obstructions the symptoms are more remarkable and dramatic.
Affected cats generally develop the symptoms listed below. The severity of the symptoms generally depends on various factors such as the part of the affected intestinal tract, whether the obstruction is partial or total, and how long the obstruction has been present.
Symptoms Suggesting Intestinal Obstructions in Cats
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Persistent vomiting
- Few if any bowel movements
- Abdominal pain
- Hunched-up position
- In some cases, diarrhea
A cat exhibiting symptoms of an intestinal obstruction should see the vet immediately because the obstruction may cause potential complications and even death.
Swallowed Items Are a Common Cause of Obstructions
Cats are less likely than dogs to eat foreign objects, but they may eat small items found around the house, causing serious and often life-threatening intestinal obstructions.
Items Cats Most Commonly Swallow
The most common items that are swallowed by cats are small buttons, strings, coins, Christmas tinsel, Easter basket grass, thread, toys, yarn, and even needles. Sometimes intestinal problems are caused by food items the cat ate, such as a piece of bone or a chunk of a corn cob. The most affected cats are young ones, generally kittens and cats under the age of two. This is because at these ages, cats are at the peak of their curiosity phase leading them towards trouble.
Other Possible Causes of Intestinal Obstructions
- At times, cats, in particular kittens, may be affected by a blockage created by intestinal parasites. This is mostly seen in kittens heavily infested by roundworms.
- In some cases, the blockage may be caused by a hernia or tumor which has grown big enough to block the cat's intestinal tract. This is mostly seen in senior cats.
- Long-haired cats may get their intestinal tract blocked by large hairballs.
- Obstruction may be caused by an intussusception, where for unknown reasons a segment of the bowel will collapse into itself like a telescope, or like a sock turned inside out.
Treatment for Intestinal Blockages in Cats
Once the blockage is in the intestinal tract, the only way to unblock the intestinal tract is to have the cat undergo surgery. This is done under total anesthesia. The prognosis depends on how quickly the cat undergoes surgery, the cat's general state of health, the cause of the obstruction, and if there were any complicating factors involved.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: My cat took some chicken from my plate that had bones. I heard her crunching. She has pooped, but she is not eating much and now has diarrhea. What do I do?
Answer: It would be best to play it safe and see the vet. When working for the vet, we instructed owners of cats who ate chicken bones to monitor for signs such as vomiting, lethargy, not eating, straining, diarrhea or abdominal pain and to consult us without delay if any such symptoms appeared.
Your cat is manifesting two of these symptoms, which make a blockage more likely although the fact you heard your cat crunching the bones up is rather reassuring.
On the other hand, cats may too get diarrhea and lack of appetite simply as a result of eating something they are not used to. So it's difficult to say what is going on. When in doubt, it's always best to err on the side of caution and see the vet to play it safe.
Question: Can abdominal fluid buildup be a sign of intestinal blockage? My 14-year-old cat has a history of eating packing tape.
Answer: Abdominal swelling with pain can be a sign of a blockage in cats. A blockage would also cause a lot of vomiting and diarrhea. At this age though, fluid in the abdomen (ascites) may derive from several conditions you may want to have ruled out by your vet such as a ruptured bladder, liver damage, low levels of protein in the blood (hypoproteinemia) congestive heart failure, abdominal bleeding, abdominal cancer etc. It may be insightful to obtain lab results from analysis of the fluid and possibly ultrasound/ biopsy.
© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli
Kim on February 20, 2018:
Yesterday morning, my 8 month old persian was hunched over and in extreme pain. He had had diarrhea during the night. My husband took him to the vet, and they did an ultrasound. His intestines were twisted, and it looked like he had a blockage. The vet performed surgery and untwisted my kitten’s intestines and contents of the intestine passed through on its own. The surgery took less than 10 minutes, and the vet charged $150. It was scary, and he would have died if we had not taken him to the vet immediately.
Kathy on April 04, 2016:
We had 2 cars that were very active and healthy except they threw up a lot. We talked to our vet about it and he gave them a clean bill of health and said they just ate too much too soon. One day our female cat. Started to literally cry and being that it was on a Sunday we called our vet and talked to him by phone. He said it was either gas or an upset stomach. He recommended not feeding her and to bring her into his office in the morning. She seemed to rally a little but a few hours later she became lethargic and I knew something more serious was wrong. I rushed her to a emergency vet service in the next town where that vet took x-rays and said she had a twisted intestine. She died in my arms 10 minutes later. Six days later her brother started to act strange
The vet thought he was grieving his sister's loss. We insisted on him being seen by the vet. He died the same way of the same thing the next morning. All the vet could tell us was that he thought it was something hereditary. They were six years old and had never had a health problem. Has anyone heard of this before?
Peg on July 23, 2012:
Vicki, have you tried applying for care credit? It's a line of credit for health care. It can also be used for vet care. You have to give an estimated cost . . . you can call the care credit folks . . .talk with your vet about it . . . it's worth a shot. Here's the link http://www.carecredit.com/
vicki on July 22, 2012:
i just came from the emergency animal hosp because my cat has been ill for the past 3 or 4 days. we believe he may have ingested a part of a plastic bag. i am absolutely heart broken because we can not afford the outrageous medical bills to take care of the diagnostic or surgical part if that is what's needed to make him better. has anyone heard of an obstruction opening up on it's own??? we love our cat dearly and want to make him better. we just can't spend all this money doing it
santiq on March 23, 2011:
yes, This article is very helpful....
Eric Prado from Webster, Texas on March 08, 2011:
This has been very helpful. Thank you so much for posting this =)
Karen on December 05, 2010:
My late Burmese cat had a partial bowel obstruction! She was renowned in my home for eating everything - hair ties, electrical cables. When I say everything I literally mean everything.
She became very unwell. I took her to the vet, who after taking her history and seeing her many times to re-hydrate her or take an array of different tests told me that she had hepatitis. I asked him during one consult why her stomach was making noticeable peristaltic movements and he shrugged and stared at me, because he felt It was time for me to let go.
Long story short...two vets later and a lot of money keeping her alive!!! An x-ray and palpitation indicated a bowel obstruction. Surgery revealed one of my sons foam letters from a jigsaw! I think it was part of a 'J' or 'T' lol.
It was a very expensive and emotionally trying experience to go through. My cat was very very ill for quite awhile. It is incredible and concerning the amount of vets out there that are cocky and do not listen to their patients.
tpe on November 23, 2010:
I will be careful of that now.
KStyle on September 15, 2010:
this is very helpful info. I suspected there might be some kind of worms involved but the vet said he was fine.
Jorge Vamos on June 04, 2010:
Hm. Christmas tinsel? My cat likes to lick tape. I hope she doesn't eat any.
iamcoolguy on December 04, 2009:
Scary. Thanks for the information, alexandry. Need to double check everything to prevent this from happening to any cat stopping by at my house.
gwennies pen on August 21, 2009:
Good hub, alexandry! : ) Very informative and helpful to know.