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Veterinarians share simple ways to identify and treat this common condition.

By Erica Sloan
March 26, 2020
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Credit: Kiszon Pascal/Getty

On the spectrum of health issues, constipation may not seem like all that big of a deal, at least when it occurs in people. But in felines, being backed-up for more than a couple of days can put a serious damper on quality of life—and if left untreated, it can spiral into a condition called megacolon, where the muscles of the colon are required to stretch so much that they're irreversibly weakened. To steer clear of complications, it's best to act quickly once you suspect that your furry friend may be blocked up.

To determine some of the common symptoms, as well as the triggers and typical treatments for the condition, we spoke with Martha Cline and Alene Opatut, both veterinarians at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.

Signs and Symptoms

Most healthy cats take care of business at least once a day. If you've noticed that yours hasn't gone for more than 24 hours, that's a clear indicator that something is off. "Many times, owners will also report that their cat is straining in the litter box, sometimes crying or vomiting from pushing so hard," says Opatut. (Because this kind of behavior may also indicate a urinary tract obstruction—which is much more serious—it's best to contact your vet right away if you notice this.) Should you also see that little Luna has lost some of her appetite, is drinking less water, seems to be stressed or depressed, or adopts a hunched-over posture, it's likely that she's constipated.

Common Causes

Pinpointing the trigger of a cat's constipation is tricky, since it can be rather innocuous—like decreased water intake, lack of exercise, or overgrooming (which can cause blockages from hairballs)—or related to a different condition like kidney disease, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism, Opatut says. These kinds of underlying illnesses can cause chronic dehydration, which may not be noticeable until it snowballs into constipation.

In some cases, your cat may have just developed an aversion to her litter box, which you can remedy by changing the type of litter you're using (experiment until you notice a positive shift in her behavior) or cleaning it more frequently. If your cat is overweight, she's also more prone to constipation from the get-go. Plus, toting around a few extra pounds can make using the litter box cumbersome, particularly if she's suffering from sore joints or arthritis.

Treatment

Before taking any action at home, pay a visit to your vet, who will ask you some questions about Kitty's recent changes in behavior and likely complete some diagnostic testing to get to the root of her condition. Typically, that'll come in the form of an endoscopic exam (which allows the vet to look inside the colon for any abnormalities) and bloodwork to identify whether an underlying condition is the culprit. If so, your vet will develop a plan to manage or resolve it—which should get things moving, too. Otherwise, treatment will vary based on the severity of the constipation.

"The first line of therapy is feeding a diet supplemented with a fiber source, like psyllium husk," says Cline. (The dosing and frequency will depend on the cat's size.) Serving your kitty more canned foods can also up her water consumption and help regulate things, Opatut adds. If the situation is more severe, your vet may prescribe a laxative or suggest rehydration by way of an IV. And in the case of a complete blockage, she'll conduct a surgical removal of the feces and any damaged parts of the colon—a life-saving procedure, which has the power to restore Sophie to her happy, pre-constipation self.

Martha Stewart Living, April 2020

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