You are sitting by your dining room table and you hear your cat scratching the litter box repeatedly. You may initially feel blessed to have such an overly clean cat that tries its best to cover its smell! However, the scratching continues and soon you decide to take a look. There's your cat, scratching and straining, straining and scratching. You finally come to the conclusion that your kitty must be constipated. Constipation in cats is a pretty common scenario, especially for obese, middle-aged, and senior cats.
It is very important to distinguish a constipated cat from a cat with a urinary tract infection (UTI). These conditions present with similar symptoms and are easily confused. A male cat with a urinary blockage or UTI requires emergency veterinary care.
Ruling Out Urinary Tract Issues and Obstructions
It is vital to rule out a UTI in a male cat. A urinary blockage can cause a life-threatening electrolyte imbalance and is a medical emergency. Here are two standard indications of a UTI:
- Inadequate or blood-tinged urine. A cat with a UTI will be straining to pass urine instead of feces and you may observe small urine drops mixed with blood (in severe cases there may be no urine output at all).
- Incessant grooming of genitals. A cat with a UTI will lick his/her genital area often; consider that some constipated cats may do the same.
Turn into a detective and investigate your kitty's litter box by checking for feces and urine. Whichever is absent may help you understand why he/she is straining.
Obstructions also require prompt veterinary attention. Obstructions are alternate blockages and may be caused by intestinal hairballs, foreign bodies, tumors, and parasites, to name a few. Car accidents, or any type of trauma that may cause pelvis injuries and/or damage nerves, can also cause constipation.
Indications of Constipation
Now that you've ruled out a UTI, let's address constipation. Be aware that some cats may be found straining in locations other than the litter box. The reason? Cat psychology. The cat goes to the litter box and strains to have a bowel movement. The straining causes pain and the pain is then associated with the litter box. Your poor cat may attempt to go to the bathroom in places such as the bathtub or on your favorite rug. Do not scold your cat for this as scolding will feed the negative association.
Constipated cats may exhibit the following:
- Irritability (we may understand why)
- Vocalization with straining (also symptomatic of a UTI)
In more severe cases of constipation requiring veterinary care, your cat may exhibit:
Feline constipation may be confusing at times. Your cat may be straining one instant and have diarrhea the next. Liquid stool is all that can pass the mass of dry impacted feces; this diarrhea may be mixed with blood or mucous. Keep in mind, even if what you see in the litterbox looks like diarrhea, it may be secondary to an impaction.
Vet Explains Home Remedies for Cat Constipation
How to Help a Constipated Cat
Ensure Proper Hydration
Cats mostly defecate once to twice a day, but a constipated cat will only go every two to four days. This period of constipation may cause cats to become dehydrated, so make sure your cat gets water. You can check the level of dehydration in a cat by lifting the skin over its shoulder blades. In a hydrated cat, it should spring back promptly. If the skin "tents," and slowly returns to position, your cat is most likely dehydrated and should be taken to the veterinarian for supplementary fluids.
Offer Wet Food
Wet food helps the bowels significantly more than dry food. You may also want to increase your cat's fiber intake. Sometimes adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of canned pumpkin (plain pumpkin, no pie filling or spices) to the cat's food may help get things moving. A special senior diet or hairball diet also contains a good amount of fiber. Keep in mind, if you need to change your cat's diet you must do so slowly to avoid gastrointestinal issues.
Incorporating fiber into your cat's diet can also provide relief. A pure psyllium-containing product should help soften stool. Some veterinarians will prescribe 1/4 to 1 teaspoon of Metamucil a day, or 1 tablespoon of wheat bran per day incorporated into wet food. Always check with your veterinarian before incorporating new supplements into your cat's diet, especially if your cat has dietary sensitivities and restrictions. Products should not contain the artificial sweetener xylitol. Xylitol is toxic to cats.
In my veterinary practice, we once treated a cat suffering from megacolon. The owner noticed a great improvement after sprinkling a bit of Benefiber on top of her cat's canned food.
Most cats are lactose intolerant and sometimes some milk can help the cat, but this is generally avoided due to undesirable side effects.
Laxatone, which vet offices often sell over-the-counter, is a good stimulant and is available in yummy flavors. It is usually given to cats with hairball problems but may stimulate a bowel movement. It should not be used long-term. Laxatone is best given on an empty stomach because it may interfere with nutrient absorption. You can offer Laxatone on your finger—your cat may happily lick it off.
If your cat is in discomfort and/or fails to have a bowel movement despite gentle remedies, your veterinarian may take a more aggressive approach:
- Lactulose is a sugary syrup that retains water in the stool and makes feces easier to pass.
- Docusate sodium (Colace) is a gentle laxative that may be used for constipation.
- Cisapride may be used for stubborn cases. Cisapride should be used only in instances where gastrointestinal motility won't harm the patient due to mechanical impaction.
Preventing Constipation Is Key
Once the constipation episode resolves, it is important to prevent future episodes from happening. Over time, the colon may lose muscular motility and cause a condition called megacolon (enlargement of the large intestine which often requires surgical correction). In such a case where medications are tried with no results, the cat may need external help to evacuate the bowels. Techniques may include enemas and the manual extraction of impacted feces; this is a permanent condition requiring repeated medications, trips to the veterinarian's office, or surgery.
Do not use human enemas on cats! Fleet enemas and those containing phosphate, sodium phosphate, or saline, can be fatal.
What Is Causing Your Cat to Be Constipated?
It is vital at this point to find out the root cause of the constipation. Some common causes include age, obesity, and lack of exercise, but some triggers are harder to pinpoint. You can follow these steps to reduce the likelihood of an episode:
- Always allow access to clean, fresh water.
- Choose an appropriate diet. Strictly dry cat food does not provide sufficient water intake. Many cats have fewer episodes when on food containing good fiber content.
- Reduce environmental stress. Being in a new environment may cause a cat to hold a bowel movement.
- Cats that are post-surgery may not go potty for two reasons: the pain and stress of surgery, and an empty stomach (there is not much to evacuate until the pet eats again).
- Sometimes a dirty litter box may discourage your cat from going. Make sure it is clean and avoid covered litter boxes that concentrate smells that can easily offend your cat.
Next time you hear kitty scratching in the litter box, be ready to turn into a detective. You can provide your veterinarian with helpful insight when trying to piece together what the root cause of the constipation is. Chances are, the cause may be a lack of exercise or just that kitty needs a diet change and will soon be back to normal.
The above article is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a veterinarian nor is this content to be used as a diagnostic tool. Various medical conditions may resemble the descriptions provided above.
Dr. Jacob Vencil
- The article has been modified since this review was written.
“This article contains safe and thorough medical advice regarding constipation in cats.”