Reviewed and updated for accuracy on March 10, 2020, by Dr. Aja Senestraro, DVM
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Constipation is common in cats. Usually, it’s mild, and you can help your cat with simple home treatments.
But sometimes, constipation in cats can indicate more serious health issues, and it can become very severe and uncomfortable. So how do you know when it’s a serious problem that needs vet attention?
Here’s what you need to know about cat constipation symptoms and causes, what you can do to help your cat, and when to be concerned.
Constipation is characterized by infrequent stools or stools that are difficult to pass. Most cats will poop about every 24-36 hours. If your cat is pooping less frequently and having some difficulty, she may be constipated.
While there is some normal variation, if it’s been more than 48-72 hours without a bowel movement, you should contact your vet.
The main signs of constipation in cats are:
- Dry, hard stools (inside or outside the litter box)
Normally, the poop is a rich brown color and should look well-formed. “A healthy stool has enough moisture that litter will stick to it,” says Dr. Liz Bales, VMD. Cats with constipation may have very dry, hard stools. You may find these stools outside the litter box, because the discomfort of trying to pass stool can cause cats to leave the litter box before they’re actually finished.
- Crying or straining in the litter box, or avoiding it altogether
Other signs of discomfort can be vocalizing or straining when using the litter box or going in and out multiple times before using it. Your cat may strain but not be able to poop at all. Showing discomfort in the litter box can also be a sign of serious urinary tract issues, so you should contact a vet if you see these signs.
Constipation is really a symptom of other issues, so you may also see signs of the underlying cause. These may include:
- Decreased appetite
- Drinking more or less water
- Peeing more
- Weight loss
- Muscle loss
- Difficulty jumping up
- Walking stiffly
If you’re seeing any of these symptoms, with or without constipation, you should discuss them with your cat’s vet.
“Anything that causes dehydration in a cat may result in constipation,” says Dr. Bales. Some issues are mild and treatable at home with dietary and lifestyle modifications, and some can be serious.
Constipation can happen if the intestines aren’t moving things along normally, keeping the stool soft and moist. This can be caused by underlying issues like stress and anxiety, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, nerve problems, and even some kinds of cancer.
Chronic diseases that can result in constipation in cats include kidney disease, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism. Ruptured or impacted anal sacs may also cause your cat pain with defecation and may result in constipation. Cats eating dry food diets are predisposed to dehydration and constipation as well.
If a cat is holding her stool longer than normal, constipation can occur as the intestines reabsorb too much water when the stool sits in them for too long. Reasons for this include obesity, stress and anxiety, pain from arthritis or anal gland issues, a blockage, or even some kinds of cancer.
Constipation is common in cats but can indicate serious disease, so it should be discussed with your vet.
Constipation must be treated as soon as possible to reduce the risk of permanent damage due to prolonged distension of the colon. Effective treatment involves identifying and correcting the underlying disorder (if possible), removing the impacted feces, and preventing recurrences.
For immediate relief of constipation, your veterinarian can give your cat fluids and/or an enema. “Administering an enema to a cat is a veterinary job and should not be attempted at home,” says Dr. Bales. Some types of enemas designed for people are actually very toxic to cats.
Vets can also prescribe medications or recommend over-the-counter solutions to help you manage the symptoms of your cat’s constipation.
More importantly, your vet can help identify the underlying issue that’s causing the constipation so it can be treated, rather than just trying to manage the symptoms.
Some cats with long-term constipation or obstipation may have megacolon, an enlarged intestine caused by a defect in the muscle strength of the colon. Cats with chronic constipation or megacolon that have been unresponsive to medical treatment may respond to removal of the affected section of the large intestine.
Here’s a list of things you can do at home to help relieve your cat’s constipation.
Increase Water Consumption
Since dehydration contributes to constipation, drinking more water and staying well-hydrated helps prevent constipation. Cats aren’t very good at drinking standing water, so the best way to increase their water consumption and keep them well-hydrated is by feeding them wet food. This dramatically increases their water intake and significantly reduces their risk of constipation.
You can also encourage your cat to drink more water by adding setting up more water bowls in different areas of your home, trying pet water fountains, leaving a faucet dripping, and flavoring the water with things cats like, such as clam juice, tuna juice, or beef broth. If you do flavor your cat’s water, always leave a plain water source, too, in case they don’t like the flavored water.
Try a New Diet
Food allergies can cause intestinal inflammation and constipation in cats. Changing the protein source of your cat’s food (chicken, lamb, etc.) can reduce inflammation and allow the intestines to move more normally, reducing constipation.
For cats that may be allergic to multiple things, there are also special limited ingredient diets and hypoallergenic diets available. It does take about 8-12 weeks for a diet change to work, though, so this is part of long-term management.
Follow the recommended transition period, mixing the old food with the new as stated on the cat food package.
Help Your Cat Maintain a Healthy Weight
Obesity causes intestinal inflammation, which causes things to slow down in the intestines. Too much water is then absorbed from the stool, causing constipation. In severe cases, there’s so much fat in the belly that it physically impedes movement of stools. Your vet can help you figure out if your cat needs to lose weight and work with you to create a diet plan.
Increase Exercise and Enrichment
Exercise can help promote normal movement of the intestines, which helps treat and prevent constipation. Encourage your cat to be more active with things like cat toys, cat trees, window seats, and more playtime with you. Exercise will also help provide enrichment and reduce your cat’s anxiety, and it will help with weight loss.
Minimize Stress and Anxiety
Cats can easily become stressed when their routines are disrupted. There could be a more obvious cause, like having a new pet in the house or moving, or it could be less obvious, like a change in your schedule, construction noise nearby, or a new dog barking in the neighborhood.
Sometimes it just takes time for a cat to adjust to changes. But you can help reduce stress and anxiety by using things like calming pheromones (Feliway), supplements (Zylkene and Solliquin are commonly used), herbs, and/or medications.
Add More Litter Boxes
Cats can be quite particular about their litter boxes. If they don’t like the location of a litter box or even the type of box or litter, they may not use it as much, which can lead to constipation. You should have at least one more litter box than you have cats, and there should be at least one litter box on every floor of your home. You may need to experiment with different types of boxes and litter to find what your cat likes.
Try Fiber or Probiotics
Probiotics are “good bacteria” that help support healthy intestines. Healthy intestines will move stool along normally and keep stools soft, preventing constipation.
Fiber feeds the good bacteria and helps promote normal movement in the intestines. It can also help keep more water in the intestines, which helps treat and prevent constipation.
There are different types of fiber, so what works best will vary between cats. Some common sources are Psyllium husks (Metamucil), and wheat bran. Canned pumpkin is often used, but it actually contains very little fiber and lots of sugar, so it isn’t the best choice for most cats.
However, “the gastrointestinal tract of cats is a little different from people, so high-fiber diets do not always help constipation,” explains Dr. Scott Gellman. In fact, sometimes a low-fiber diet works better. “A lot of it depends on the cause of the problem. The important thing to understand is there is usually an underlying cause of constipation, and the cat should be brought to a veterinarian to help figure it out.”
Ask Your Vet About Over-the-Counter Laxatives
The following over-the-counter products may treat symptoms of constipation, but make sure to consult your veterinarian before giving any new supplements or medications to your cat.
There are several types of laxatives that work in different ways. Most over-the-counter options work by causing the body to pull more water into the intestines, which helps soften the stool so it’s easier to pass.
Because they pull water into the intestines, laxatives can make other symptoms worse for cats with underlying chronic diseases, causing dehydration. You should ask your vet if they’re a good option for your cat.
Miralax (PEG 3350) is commonly used in cats with constipation, and Colace (docusate) is also an option. Other laxatives that are designed for people can cause issues for cats.
Oil- or grease-based laxatives like Laxatone should only be used if a vet recommends them and should not be used long-term, as they can affect a cat’s ability to absorb nutrients from their food.
Monitor Your Cat for Constipation
Monitor the frequency of your cat’s defecation and stool consistency at least twice a week initially, and then weekly or biweekly.
Contact your veterinarian if you notice very hard, dry feces, or if you notice that your cat is straining while defecating. Watch for any of the other signs of constipation, and contact your veterinarian if you notice diarrhea, especially, since this can quickly lead to dehydration.
By: Stacia Friedman
Featured Image: iStock.com/disqis