Overview

Severity: Low - Medium
Life Stage: All
  • Constipation in cats is rarely serious, but some cases require veterinary attention.
  • Kidney disease, obesity, or poor nutrition could play a role in constipation.
  • Most cases of cat constipation are mild and can be managed with outpatient care.
  • In more severe cases, surgery or hospitalization may be required.
  • Plenty of water, a healthy weight, and a high-quality diet can help prevent cat constipation.

Even the most adorable pets require some dirty work, and when it comes to cats, that dirty work includes keeping the litter box clean. 

Scooping poop is by no means a pleasant task, but the state of your cat’s litter box can provide insight into his health. For example, you might notice that there isn’t anything to scoop for several days, which could mean that your cat is constipated. 

Yes, like people, cats can get constipated. While most cases of cat constipation aren’t particularly serious, there are times where the condition requires veterinary attention. 

Here’s everything you need to know at cat constipation, including causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

What is Cat Constipation?

If your cat is constipated, it means he isn’t pooping regularly or he’s having difficulty emptying his bowels. Cats typically defecate one to three times per day, so if you notice that it’s been more than a day or two since new poop has appeared in the litter box, it’s time to start really watching your cat’s bathroom habits for further symptoms.

A cat who occasionally goes a day or two without defecating shouldn’t cause much worry, but if the lack of feces is ongoing and you start noticing further symptoms—like your cat straining to go without success or crying as he uses the litter box—it could indicate that a bowel obstruction has become severely impacted and that it’s time to visit your veterinarian (1). In extreme cases, untreated constipation can be fatal.

Causes of Constipation in Cats

Feline constipation is usually idiopathic, meaning there is no identifiable cause, says Dr. Karlin Erk, an emergency veterinarian at The Center for Animal Referral and Emergency Services in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. “However, there are certainly factors that can contribute to constipation, including disease and nutrition,” he says.

For example, constipation is common in older cats with chronic kidney disease. “The kidney insufficiency causes subclinical dehydration, and this draws water out of the colon just like all other tissues in the body,” Erk says. “The result is hard and dry fecal material that is harder to excrete.”

Obesity can also play a role in constipation. A 2019 study of 189 cats admitted to veterinary emergency rooms found that older, overweight cats with chronic kidney disease or previous episodes of constipation were more likely to be constipated (2). 

Improper nutrition, prior pelvic fractures, and megacolon (a pathologic distention of the colon) can also contribute to cat constipation, Erk says. 

Other possible causes of cat constipation include traumatic injury, infection, adverse reaction to medication, lack of access to drinking water, intestinal tumors, neurologic disease, and metabolic abnormalities (1). 

Cat Constipation Symptoms 

Symptoms of constipation in cats

If you think your cat might be constipated, there are symptoms you can observe. Straining to defecate and pain while defecating are the most common signs of constipation, Erk says. Other cat constipation symptoms may include:

  • Fecal material that is hard, dry, or abnormally large 
  • Small amounts of diarrhea (a cat can pass liquid around an impacted mass, but not the mass itself)
  • Blood in stool
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Litter box aversion

Diagnosing Constipation in Cats 

If it’s been more than a couple of days since you’ve scooped fresh poop from your cat’s litter box, or if you’ve seen other signs of constipation, it’s time to visit the veterinarian for an official diagnosis. 

Constipation is usually diagnosed through a combination of the cat’s history and clinical signs, a thorough physical and rectal exam, and X-rays, Erk saysYour veterinarian may also feel your cat’s abdomen to determine whether the colon contains hard stool. 

Diagnosis may also include blood tests, ultrasounds, and urinalysis to rule out a urinary tract infection—a condition that often presents like constipation, but is much more dangerous, especially for male cats (1). 

Cat Constipation Treatment 

Veterinarian treating cat constipation

Luckily, most cases of cat constipation are mild and can be managed with outpatient care. “This includes the administration of an enema, subcutaneous fluids (fluids given under the skin), changes in diet, and stool softeners,” Erk says. These treatments are relatively inexpensive, he says.

Unfortunately, more serious cases often require hospitalization. “At this point, the cat would be given intravenous fluids and anesthesia for manual removal of the impacted fecal material,” Erk describes. 

In the most severe cases, the colon can be irreversibly distended and damaged, which would require surgical intervention.

Though some pet parents might think that a belly massage could help break up a blockage, Dr. Sarah Wallace, a veterinarian based in Washington, D.C., says that this is not the case and a cat constipation massage should never be attempted. 

“We can feel if there are feces in the intestines causing a blockage, but we never want to massage that area,” she says. “It doesn’t break things up or get them moving. Imagine a rock is in your intestines. If you start massaging it, it’s just going to rub against the sides of intestines around it, causing more discomfort and not solving anything.”

Common Medications for Cat Constipation 

Medications that veterinarians rely on when treating cat constipation include lactulose, a non-digestible synthetic sugar that acts as a stool softener. “Lactulose works by pulling water into the intestines, which makes it easier for things to move,” Wallace explains.

Another is Miralax, an over-the-counter laxative and stool softener. Miralax is available in a powder, which Wallace says works much like lactulose. Though pet parents may be able to get Miralax over the counter, Wallace asserts that they should not administer it before consulting with a veterinarian.

Cost of Treatment 

The cost of treating constipation varies, depending on the diagnosis and which course of treatment is chosen, as well as geographic location.

“For less severe cases, which require an exam and maybe some medications, fluids, or an enema, I’d estimate between $400 and $500,” Wallace says. “In instances where it’s been about a week since the cat has defecated and is severely dehydrated, treatment could require a laxative and anesthesia so that the veterinarian can manually remove stuck fecal matter, as well as fluids. Any procedure with anesthesia is going to be pricier—in the $700 to $1,200 range.”

In some cases, procedures will need to be repeated to ensure the cat’s system is clear, meaning that costs can stack up pretty quickly, Wallace adds. She also says that surgical intervention for a distended colon would be between $5,000 and $6,000.

Home Remedies for Cat Constipation

Home remedies, like stool softeners and changes in diet, may relieve cat constipation, but like Wallace mentions above, Erk cautions that pet parents should never administer home remedies before checking in with their veterinarian. “Cat owners should always have their pet evaluated before trying any home remedies, specifically because of the risks of delaying appropriate care or mistaking constipation for other potentially life threatening situations, like a urinary blockage,” he says.

Wallace says that the best thing that cat parents can do at home to combat constipation is to ensure their cat is drinking enough water. “The number one thing I recommend to patients is a kitty water fountain,” she says. “Cats like drinking running water better than still water.” If that doesn’t work, or a water fountain isn’t in your budget, Wallace also suggests adding either low-sodium chicken broth or a bit of tuna juice to your cat’s water. “It flavors it and they’ll drink more because it tastes good,” she explains.

Another remedy Wallace mentions is psyllium powder—a soluble fiber that can be added to a cat’s food as either a powder or a liquid. She also says that adding pumpkin to your cat’s food may help with constipation, as it adds both fiber and moisture. However, it’s not a given that your cat will actually eat it. “They have to like pumpkin, and we know that cats don’t eat anything they don’t like.”

Wallace adds that exercise can also help get things moving, but only if the constipation isn’t too severe.

How to Prevent Constipation in Cats

Preventing constipation in cats

While nothing is 100 percent preventable—especially when it comes to the notoriously unpredictable creatures that are cats—there are steps that pet parents can take to minimize the chance of their cat becoming constipated. “Preventing obesity and feeding a high quality commercial diet are most important,” Erk says. 

Wallace concurs, adding that exercise is key to helping a cat maintain a healthy weight, which helps prevent constipation.

Increasing the amount of fiber in your cat’s diet can also boost the production of short-chain fatty acids, which stimulate colonic smooth muscle contraction, noted Dr. Susan Little while speaking at the World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings in 2011 (3). That being said, diets high in fiber can increase the amount of feces a cat produces, which can be counterproductive to decreasing constipation. She recommends a canned food diet, to ensure the cat is getting enough hydration. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, though. Your veterinarian can help determine the best diet for your cat. 

Related Conditions 

As previously mentioned, cats with untreated constipation may develop a megacolon, that is, a colon that is permanently distended and does not function properly. While megacolons are usually the result of constipation, it could be a congenital condition (4).

Urinary blockages can sometimes present with similar symptoms as constipation, such as straining and vocalizing in the litter box. These are extremely dangerous for cats—especially male cats—and should be treated by a veterinarian immediately.

 

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