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Intestinal Blockage in Cats

Cat playing with and eating yarn
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Severity: i Critical
Life stage: All

Do you ever catch your cat playing with a hair elastic or other small toy? For many pet parents, this can trigger a bit of panic. What happens if your cat accidentally or intentionally swallows that item? A cat who swallows a foreign object is at risk of an intestinal blockage, which poses serious health risks. 

Fortunately, intestinal blockages are relatively rare in cats. A Banfield Pet study found that approximately 16 in 10,000 cats (0.16 percent) will be diagnosed with a gastrointestinal foreign body in a given year (1). Still, a small risk does not mean zero risk, and intestinal blockages can present a significant health risk in cats. 

Read on to learn more about intestinal blockage in cats, including causes, signs, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

What Is Intestinal Blockage?

An intestinal blockage, also known as an intestinal obstruction or bowel obstruction, occurs when the intestinal contents are unable to move normally through the intestine. By preventing movement of the intestinal contents, an intestinal blockage keeps a cat from digesting food normally. Intestinal blockage rapidly leads to signs of illness, and it can be fatal without treatment. 

What Causes Intestinal Blockage in Cats?

There are several possible causes of bowel obstruction in cats. 

A common cause of intestinal blockage is a foreign object that has been ingested by the cat. Some cats like to eat objects they should avoid, like string, small toys, elastic hair bands, etc. Any of these foreign objects can become lodged in a cat’s intestinal tract, leading to an obstruction or blockage. 

Some blockages are caused by intestinal cancer. Lymphoma is a cancer that can affect the feline intestinal tract, causing swelling and thickening of the intestines. When the intestines become swollen and inflamed, the opening of the intestinal tract may become too narrow for the intestinal contents to pass. Less common forms of intestinal cancer, like adenocarcinoma, fibrosarcoma, and mast cell tumors, can also cause intestinal blockage in cats.

Less common causes of intestinal obstruction in cats include: 

Intestinal blockage can affect cats of any age. Young cats are more likely to experience a blockage caused by a foreign body or parasites, while middle-aged and older cats are more likely to develop cancer that may lead to a blockage. 

Cat Intestinal Blockage Symptoms

An intestinal blockage quickly causes signs of illness in affected cats. These signs are related to the cat’s inability to move food through the intestinal tract. Early signs often include decreased appetite and vomiting. If left untreated, this will quickly progress to more severe signs. 

Signs of intestinal blockage in cats include: 

There is no definitive cat intestinal blockage timeline. There is also no definitive answer to how long a cat can live with intestinal blockage. Some cats experience a partial blockage, which is usually accompanied by a slower and more gradual onset of signs. In the case of a complete obstruction, however, cats can go downhill quickly. A complete intestinal blockage can be fatal in as little as a few days. 

Diagnosing Intestinal Blockage in Cats

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam. They will look for signs of dehydration and weight loss. Your veterinarian will carefully check under your cat’s tongue, because linear foreign bodies (like string) often become lodged under the tongue. Finally, your veterinarian will palpate (feel) your cat’s abdomen (belly). In some cases, a veterinarian can feel an abdominal mass or signs of a foreign body obstruction on palpation. 

Next, your veterinarian will likely recommend radiographs (X-rays). Radiographs are used to assess the intestinal tract and are often all that is needed to diagnose an obstruction. In some cases, ultrasound or other tests may be needed.

Your veterinarian may also recommend bloodwork. Intestinal obstructions can lead to changes in organ function. Knowing about potential organ dysfunction is especially important if your pet is undergoing anesthesia for surgical treatment. 

Treatment: How to Help a Cat with Intestinal Blockage

Cat undergoing surgery in hospital

A bowel blockage in cats typically requires surgery. After anesthetizing the cat, the veterinarian will make an incision through the cat’s body wall to inspect the intestinal tract. When the obstruction is located, the veterinarian will make an incision into the intestines to remove the obstruction (foreign material or mass). The intestines are sutured closed, and then the body wall is closed. 

If the obstruction is located within the stomach, a veterinarian may attempt to induce vomiting before going to surgery. In some cases, small objects within the stomach can be brought up with vomiting. Foreign bodies in the stomach can also be removed with endoscopy. Endoscopy requires general anesthesia (like surgery), but it is a less invasive procedure. 

There is no cat intestinal blockage home remedy. Cats with an intestinal blockage require urgent veterinary care.

Supportive Care

Supportive care is needed before, during, and after surgical treatment of an intestinal obstruction in cats.

While hospitalized, your cat may receive the following treatments: 

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Pain medication 
  • Antibiotics (in some cases)
  • Nutritional support

Most cats begin eating normally within a few days of surgery. When your cat is discharged from the veterinary hospital, you may need to feed a prescription diet in small/limited quantities. You may also need to give pain medications at home. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions regarding post-surgical care. 

Cat Intestinal Blockage Surgery Success Rate

Removing an intestinal blockage requires creating incisions in the intestines. The most serious potential risk associated with this surgery is that one or more of these incisions could fail, allowing intestinal contents to leak into the cat’s abdomen. This can lead to a condition known as septic peritonitis, which is a life-threatening abdominal infection. 

A 2023 study by University of Georgia looked at the records of 56 cats receiving foreign body removal surgery at their hospital (2). No serious complications or deaths occurred among these patients, leading the researchers to estimate that the likelihood of septic peritonitis or death following the surgical removal of a foreign body is less than 5 percent in cats.  

There are many factors that affect the predicted success rate of surgery in cats with intestinal obstruction. Cats who have been sick for a longer time and cats who are very sick at the time of surgery typically have a worse prognosis (lower expected likelihood of success). Your veterinarian will determine your cat’s prognosis, based on a variety of factors, and communicate with you about the expected risks and benefits of surgery. 

General Cost of Treatment

Cat intestinal blockage surgery costs vary, depending on multiple factors. In general, you can expect to pay approximately $3,000–$6,000 for the diagnosis and treatment of a typical cat intestinal blockage.

How to Prevent Intestinal Blockage in Cats

Most feline intestinal blockages are caused by the ingestion of a foreign object, such as a toy or hair elastic. The best way to prevent these obstructions is to keep these items away from your cat. While it may be adorable to watch your cat play fetch with small items, this can be risky. 


  1. Holt, David E. Prevalence of Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Dogs and Cats. Today’s Veterinary Practice. Oct 2015. Retrieved from https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/gastroenterology/pet-health-numbersprevalence-gastrointestinal-foreign-bodies/
  2. Gollnick, Hailey R et al. “Retrospective evaluation of surgical treatment of linear and discrete gastrointestinal foreign bodies in cats: 2009-2021.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery vol. 25,6 (2023): 1098612X231178140. doi:10.1177/1098612X231178140