Constipation is a common condition in cats, and it can occur for many reasons. It can be frustrating to manage at home, and can cause further problems if not well managed.
We recommend seeing your vet in the first instance to have a check-up and confirm constipation is the cause and to rule out underlying disease.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, hopefully, some of the ideas in this article will help you to come up with a long-term treatment plan for your constipated cat.
What can cause constipation in cats?
Constipation can be caused by lots of different things, but the causes can be broadly broken into three groups- things that cause the cat to refuse the tray, things to cause the cat to become dehydrated, and things that physically block the intestines.
Your cat may not want to refuse his tray if, for instance, he has had a bad experience with the tray. Whilst this doesn’t cause constipation in itself, if your cat holds onto the stool longer than normal, it can ‘back up’ and become constipated. This can happen to cats that have refused to go to the toilet whilst in hospital, or to cats on house-arrest who usually toilet outside.
Nervous cats that are being bullied by a neighborhood cat can also fall into this category, as can cats that have experienced pain when toileting- like those with arthritis.
Arthritic cats also find it difficult to get into the correct position for toileting, causing them to be less able to pass feces and more prone to constipation. They’re also a little lazier and prefer to stay on the sofa for longer- meaning they might ‘hold on’ to their feces and cause constipation purely out of the unwillingness to stretch those sore legs.
Dehydration causes constipation because the body takes out all possible water as it moves through the intestines, leaving the resultant stool hard and dry. This is the most common cause of constipation.
All sorts of conditions can cause dehydration in cats – from a lack of water in the house to medical conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism and kidney failure. This means that constipation is more common in older cats, as many of these conditions affect predominantly senior cats. Unfortunately, these cats are also prone to having arthritis so your cat may have more than one thing causing their constipation.
Our final category is things that can block the intestines, causing constipation. One example would be a narrowing of the pelvis, either since birth or- more commonly- due to an accident where the pelvis sustained a fracture. These fractures often heal without surgical intervention but can result in a narrowing of the pelvic canal, making passing feces more difficult. Sometimes the cat is fine until they’re a little older and arthritis sets in, at which point the two problems combine.
Another thing that can block the intestines is hairballs – this is a common cause of constipation in cats with long fur or who overgroom due to stress.
If they don’t throw the hairball up it can move through the intestines and form very hard, difficult-to-pass feces at the other end.
Toys, bits of stuffing and food packaging can also make it hard to pass feces, even if they don’t cause life-threatening vomiting earlier on. And tumors in the abdomen or gut can also push inwards causing a narrowing and making it harder for stools to pass.
The last cause of constipation doesn’t fit into any of the categories.
Megacolon is a disease where the colon (the last part of the gut) gets larger, thinner and more flaccid- and less able to work the muscles needed to squeeze contents through to the rectum and out. Unfortunately, the rest of the gut continues to work at pushing through food, so they all end up in this area, which can fill the entire abdomen in some cases. Megacolon can happen if a cat is constipated too often and too severely, but some cats get megacolon for no apparent reason, and it can affect cats as young as 18 months.
How to tell if a cat is constipated?
Knowing what to look for if your cat is constipated is really important, as it can help you to get professional advice more quickly. Cats that are constipated will show behavioral signs such as hiding away more. You may notice repeated visits to the litter tray that produce nothing- although it’s possible for them to pass a hard nugget or a little mucus and still be constipated. They may yowl in distress, too. Severe cases of constipation may cause your cat to lose his appetite or start to vomit.
Treatments for constipation in cats
When it comes to treating constipation in cats, it’s a good idea to talk to your vet, as you’ll need to do some investigations to discover the cause of constipation. Different causes are treated differently, and if the constipation is severe your vet may need to give your cat an enema- a ‘manual clear out’ using warm soapy water. Your cat will need sedation or anesthetic if this is necessary.
Once you and your vet have determined a cause and you are treating the underlying problem (for instance, hyperthyroidism or kidney failure) you may need to find something to help your cat pass the feces. There are several options, depending on the severity of constipation.
Hairball remedies, such as hairball treats or special hairball cat diets, are great for treating constipation caused by hairballs. They’re usually safe to give long-term and can help with many minor causes of constipation. A step up from the treats available in the shop are animal laxatives- these can generally be purchased over-the-counter, although it’s a good idea to let your vet know what you’re planning to use so it can be on your pet’s medical record.
These usually come in a liquid or gel form that is to be mixed with their cat food or to lick straight from the tube- it is usually flavored- and they can be a dependable cure for mild to moderate constipation- for instance in cats that have occasional problems with a narrower pelvis.
Of course, if your cat’s constipation is caused by dehydration, then there are two routes to fixing it- getting the underlying disease well managed, and helping them rehydrate. You can do this by adding extra water to their food and mushing it in so they have to eat it.
You should also provide lots of different water bowls in different places- all cats have preferences so try glass, plastic, metal and ceramic, as well as different sizes and depths. Fountains are also useful- many cats prefer to drink from running water wherever possible, so choosing to invest in a cat water fountain may be a sensible decision.
Those cats who get constipated due to fear or a bad association with the tray may need some behavioral management. Using pheromone products like Feliway, combined with some changes to the house may be all that they need.
Try providing several litter trays of different styles and in different locations to ensure your cat always has access to a tray, even if the neighborhood bully is standing near the cat flap waiting to pounce.
Low-sided trays are great for cats with arthritis, and providing one in every room so they don’t have to walk so far may encourage them to use the tray.
If your cat is still having problems, putting extra thought into choosing a cat food is worth the time, for instance, a high-fiber diet may help. This sounds counter-intuitive, but extra fiber can help them to pass their stool more easily.
Fiber stimulates the gut to push and also helps to keep water in the small intestine. So high fiber diets produce smaller, softer stools more often. This type of diet is unlikely to work with megacolon, though- hence why you should keep in touch with your vet and go in for further investigations if the treatment isn’t working.
Remember that your vet is the best source for all queries, as they know your cat, so if you’re going to make any changes to their routine or try these tips, it’s a good idea to run it past them first.
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