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For cat parents, poop is a fact of life. Between scooping the litter box daily and tracking their output for vet visits, most of us develop an intimate understanding of our pets’ potty routines. And if you notice less frequent deposits in the box, or your cat struggling to poop, there’s a chance they may be constipated.
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, constipation is defined as “abnormal accumulation of feces in the colon, resulting in difficult bowel movements.” In other words, constipation makes it hard for your cat to poop. They may go to the bathroom less frequently or even stop going at all. But when does cat constipation turn from temporary discomfort to a medical emergency?
We look at the signs of constipation in cats, and what you can do to help them go again.
Just how can you tell if your cat is constipated, anyhow? The biggest sign is a lack of poop, which is easy to spot if you have a single cat with a single litterbox. According to Richard Goldstein, DVM, a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, most cats poop one to three times a day. So if more than one or two days pass without a poop in the box, it may be time to call the vet.
Other signs of constipation in cats include:
- Unusual crying or vocalizing while pooping
- Small, hard poops
- Blood in the stool
- Straining in the litter box
Straining in the litter box can also be a sign of urinary tract infection or blockage, so watch your cat closely to determine whether they’re trying to go #1 or #2. While constipation is fairly common and can often be treated at home, urinary obstructions can become life-threatening quickly; if you notice your cat straining in the box, it’s best to be safe and call the vet.
Constipation can occur in cats of any age, but it’s a bit more common in older cats. In fact, according to a veterinarian interviewed by PetMD, older cats with arthritis may be uncomfortable squatting in the box, so they hold their stool longer and dry it out, leading to constipation.
Other common reasons cats become constipated include:
- Dehydration, often as a result of kidney disease, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism
- Ingestion of foreign bodies
Sometimes, constipation in cats doesn’t have an obvious or specific cause. It may be a one-time thing or become chronic as your cat ages. Or, it may be a side effect of a new medication or dietary change. A veterinarian can help determine the cause and appropriate treatment.
Occasional, mild constipation can usually be diagnosed and treated at home (though we recommend a vet visit the first time, just to assess what’s going on). According to PetMD, increased water consumption is key. Water helps process and move waste through your cat’s system. Try a water fountain to encourage your cat to drink more, or switch from dry food to canned food.
In addition to putting more water in your cat’s diet, there are over-the-counter medications and supplements used to treat constipation in cats. For example:
- Metamucil fiber supplement (yup, the same kind humans take) or wheat bran can be added in small amounts to one meal per day.
- Laxatone is an edible gel that lubricates the digestive tract. It comes in several cat-friendly flavors.
- Canned pumpkin contains fiber and is a popular home remedy for both constipation and diarrhea in cats and dogs. Add 1-2 tablespoons to their food. Note: be sure to get 100% canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling!
If your cat has chronic or severe constipation, veterinary treatment is necessary. For chronic constipation, your veterinarian may prescribe a stool softener or laxative. For constipation caused by dehydration, they may administer intravenous fluids.
Or, in the case of a block-up that needs to be removed immediately, the vet may perform a warm water enema. You should never administer an enema at home unless specifically instructed and trained by your vet.
In very severe cases of constipation in cats, the vet may opt to perform surgery to remove a blockage or fix the colon. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the prognosis for these surgeries is generally good. And rest assured: occasional, minor constipation is far more common and easier to treat at home.
Constipation happens. It’s often not serious, and it may not always be preventable. But there are some things you can do to help ward off a case of clogged pipes.
The biggest way to prevent constipation is to ensure your cat has plenty of water in their diet. Refresh their water bowl every day or get a fountain to encourage drinking, and switch to canned food or add water or low-sodium broth to the bowl.
Physical activity also helps prevent and treat constipation in cats. For one thing, regular exercise will help them stay in shape, preventing obesity and the health issues that come with it. Furthermore, the more your cat moves their body, the more easily waste will move through their system. Running, jumping, chasing, and climbing all help to keep their systems operating smoothly.