Monte was what we call a “frequent flier,” and here he was again, unhappily perched on my exam room table. Mrs. Berstrande brought him in because she recognized the early warning signs that Monte was having some trouble in the litter box department. Mr. Monte has suffered difficulties with constipation for years, and has gotten gradually more severely affected and more sensitive about his food and medications — with even a small variation triggering a bout of constipation. Fortunately, however, his family was very attentive and caught the problems quickly to have him treated. This combination meant that Monte and I knew each other quite well.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation in the adult cat is quite a common phenomenon. There are many causes of constipation, and also many degrees of severity. By definition, constipation is difficulty in emptying the bowels, usually associated with harder than normal stool.
As straightforward as that sounds, it can actually be difficult for an owner at home to determine if a cat really is constipated. The simplest and, in my opinion, best way is to isolate the cat from any other cats in the household and provide a fresh, clean litter box — and then watch what happens.
Straining in the litter box does not mean that a cat is constipated, because many cats will strain when they have diarrhea. Also, of much more concern, cats can strain when they are having trouble urinating as well. So Step 1 is to figure out what, exactly, is coming out of your cat. If the problem involves No. 2 instead of No. 1, we have an entirely different set of concerns and possible treatments.
Don’t Be Fooled About Cat Constipation
Once you have had the chance to isolate the cat suspected of having constipation, watch the litter box closely. Is there any urine present? Is it a small amount, or a normal looking amount? What color does it look to be? How about stool — is there any at all? Does it look firm, or soft? Is there a lot of it?
If you are unsure of what you are seeing, take a photo of what is in the box and/or collect a sample to take to your veterinarian. Many owners go to the vet thinking that their cat is constipated, but it turns out that the cat has a urinary tract problem — so keep your mind open.
Signs And Causes Of Cat Constipation
One of the most common symptoms of constipation is a cat who is frequenting the litter box, straining, and producing plenty of urine but no (or very small and hard) stool. Sometimes they cry when in the litter box, and often they vomit. If your cat is showing these signs, but is eating normally and is active, generally it is safe to approach some “home care” for 24 to 48 hours.
Most cats produce stool either every day or every other day — so keeping track of what you see in the litter box and when is helpful. However, if several days pass or if your cat isn’t feeling well, isn’t eating normally or seems particularly uncomfortable — it is time for a trip to the veterinarian that day. If there is no urine being produced in the box, that may be a medical emergency and should be evaluated immediately.
Common causes of simple cat constipation include:
- Overgrooming, with a lot of fur being ingested.
- Snacking on plants or grasses.
- Dietary issues and food changes.
- Some medications.
- Longhaired cats sometimes accumulate fecal matter around their rectal area, blocking the “chute” such that they are unable to defecate.
- More serious concerns can be associated with medical problems, particularly problems such as kidney disease and intestinal obstructions.
Tips For At-Home Care Of A Constipated Cat
If your cat is eating and drinking normally and has the same activity level, you have 24 to 48 hours to play detective to find the cause of the problem. Consider the following questions and suggestions.
1. Has there been any recent change in diet? If so, try reverting to the usual diet.
2. Does she eat mostly dry food (which can result in dehydration and constipation in some cats)? If so, try offering canned food.
3. How is the shedding season going? Could she be in need of a brushing/grooming/de-matting?
4. Is the rectal area clean, pink and free of hair masses? If not, you may need some help to get your cat cleaned up, but relief from this problem tends to be immediate, and future prevention includes keeping that area clean and mat free. It also often involves some weight reduction (we see this cause of constipation most in heavy cats who can’t reach “back there” to groom).
If you can find the likely problem and correct it, that may be all that is needed. However, if you still aren’t sure, there are some more steps you can try at home before visiting the veterinarian.
If your cat eats a dry cat food, consider encouraging her to eat a canned cat food and drink more water. The extra fluid in the canned food along with the reduced carbohydrate levels may fix the problem. Adding some tuna juice to the water bowl may get your cat to drink a little better and become better hydrated.
Adding some canned pumpkin or fiber products, such as Metamucil or Miralax, to the food may also help to alleviate a simple case of constipation. Although both Metamucil and Miralax are generally considered to be quite safe in small amounts, I recommend contacting your veterinarian for dosing guidelines for your particular pet.
Do’s And Don’ts For At-Home Remedies
1. No enemas or suppositories! Under no circumstances would I recommend administering suppositories or enemas to your cat at home for several reasons. First, these have generally been designed for humans and sometimes contain ingredients that can be toxic — and even fatal — to cats. Second, and most importantly, cats are generally not fond of getting enemas. They often move and try to get away — which can result in accidental damage to the sensitive tissues of the colon. This damage will not be visible from the outside, but a tear in the colon wall can prove deadly. If you believe that your cat is badly enough affected by constipation to need an enema, please take her to a veterinary hospital to have this done.
2. No milk! Some other “old wives tales” about cat constipation that should be at-home no-no’s include offering milk to a constipated cat. Don’t do this. Giving milk to a constipated cat can actually cause vomiting and diarrhea in a lactose-intolerant cat, which takes a minor problem and makes it a more major one.
3. Use oils with caution. Olive/vegetable/fish oil, Vaseline and other greasy substances have often been used by owners attempting to relieve cat constipation. If the cat is willing to eat them readily without force, small amounts may actually help to lubricate the intestinal tract. Larger amounts, however, can cause diarrhea and result in dietary deficiencies of nutrients over time. Not too many cats I know will lap Vaseline up out of a dish — however, tuna in oil will sometimes be accepted voluntarily. Never force a cat to take a greasy substance by mouth — if it slides down the wrong tube it can wind up in the lungs and cause severe aspiration pneumonia.
4. Consult your veterinarian about products. What about all of the magic products for sale to treat hairballs and prevent constipation? Some good products are out there, but some are just marketing attempts to get your money. If your cat needs a special food, long-term supplement or medication, consult your veterinarian to be sure you aren’t wasting your money on a bogus product. Most cases of simple constipation can be treated readily, effectively and inexpensively.
When To Contact Your Vet About Cat Constipation
Sometimes, constipation is caused by a serious underlying health issue, such as kidney disease (a very common combination in cats). Other times, a defect in the colon or rectum makes a cat more prone to repeated or severe bouts of constipation. These are issues to address with your veterinarian. These are not appropriate for home remedies.
If at any point in time your constipated cat isn’t feeling well, eating and active, then activate plan B, which is going to the veterinarian. If 24 to 48 hours of hydration, diet change and fiber supplementation doesn’t create a nice, large stool in the litter box, then activate plan B. If your cat experiences several bouts of simple constipation that you have managed at home – but it keeps recurring, then activate plan B.
Mr. Monte’s Problem
So what happened to Mr. Monte, the cat with frequent constipation? Turns out, he snuck into another room and stole some food from the family’s new kitten. Because Monte had such frequent problems with severe constipation, we had him on a special prescription canned diet, an extra fiber supplement and a prescribed daily oral laxative. Even with all of this treatment, the power of kitten food overcame him, and just a few mouthfuls of the forbidden dry food was enough to trigger another episode. He stayed with us for the day and, two enemas later, was on his way home again, with strict instructions for him to eat only his own food. The Berstrande family decided to switch the kitten to an all canned diet to hopefully minimize the impact of future snack attacks.
Sometimes it is impossible to control all of the factors causing constipation, but fortunately, many of them are minor and can be readily addressed with a little guidance from your veterinary professional.