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Cat Constipation: How to Recognize, Treat, and Prevent It

Updated on December 19, 2011
My constipated cat, Sunny.
My constipated cat, Sunny.

Case Study in Feline Constipation: Sunny

Sunny is a mixed-breed, medium-hair neutered male cat. He is six and a half years old, and he has been a part of our family for six of those years.

Not long ago, I noticed that Sunny was not using his litter box as much as usual. And, when he did go to the litter box and I caught him at it, nothing would come out except a strange whistling, whooshing sound. He was also vomiting quite often (usually first thing in the morning after visiting his cat food dish). I thought it was strange, but I was not overly alarmed. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a little constipation and stomach upset. He’ll get over it.’

A few days passed. He didn’t get better. I never saw him actually use the litter box, and I couldn’t even be really sure that he was peeing. He was also skulking around the house growling and hissing at nothing in particular (or so I thought). Major warning bells went off in my head.

Being seven or eight o’clock at night, I knew the vet’s office wasn’t open, so I did the first thing any normal, technologically-minded person would do when they were looking for information. I turned to the Internet.

The Horror Stories

After about 30-60 minutes reading through the forum posts from other cat owners who had witnessed these same behaviors from their cats, I became scared to death!

Most of the people who had experienced this before said that they had thought their cat was constipated, only to later find out (after visiting the vet) that their cat actually had a urinary tract blockage, which can be fatal if not treated within days (and, remember, it had already been a few days for poor, sweet Sunny). I pretty much ruled out urinary tract blockage at that point, but I was still very concerned.

I went back to the cat litter box, where Sunny was trying his best to go to the bathroom again. He was hunched up in a very uncomfortable-looking position, and he was growling as he strained. My heart broke for him. I realized then that he had been growling because he was in pain! We had to do something – and quickly!

I told my husband, and he called the emergency animal hospital (thank God for those!), and they said to bring him in right away.

The Diagnosis

After hours of waiting and blood tests, x-rays, and more waiting, the vet came and told my husband (I had to stay home to take care of our two girls) that Sunny had a pretty bad colonic obstruction. She said that there was a possibility that surgery would be necessary, and that it would be expensive, but that there were other treatments that they could try that might take care of the problem. And, of course, because the doctor knew money was tight for us, she put the option of euthanasia on the table.

My husband (bless him!) promptly took it off the table. Sunny is (mostly) “his” cat. He’s bonded with my husband in a way that no other cat ever has, so my husband couldn't bear the thought of putting him down when there was a possibility that they could treat him and everything would be fine. I mean, who could blame him? Not to mention the effect it would’ve had on our almost-three-year-old daughter, who loves that cat and asked about him the whole time he was gone.

This is what feline megacolon looks like.
This is what feline megacolon looks like. | Source


The doctor started with an enema and a manual extraction. They also had to put Sunny on IV fluids because he was severely dehydrated. I think they did a few more x-rays at that point just to see what they were dealing with, and they told my husband that we could be looking at a health issue called megacolon.

This condition occurs when the nerves that send messages to the colon telling it to contract and begin pushing fecal matter out of the body do not function properly. When this happens, the muscles stretch and the colon enlarges to about three to four times its normal size. The fecal matter stays where it is, and severe constipation occurs.

Megacolon can result from a spinal injury (not the case, as far as I know, with our kitty), or it may be caused by any type of obstruction, like a tumor or hairballs (the x-ray, in Sunny’s case, showed no tumors or hairballs – just a great big hard ball of fecal matter).

Megacolon can be fatal if not treated promptly, but (fortunately) it is easily treated with a change in diet and the use of cat laxatives. Over time (several months or even years), these methods may fail to do the trick, and it might be necessary to consider surgery.

In Sunny’s case, the manual extraction went very well, and he was able to have a bowel movement on his own shortly afterwards. Still, the vet didn’t feel completely comfortable ruling out megacolon.

She prescribed some Cat Lax and Lactulose to help soften Sunny's stools because in the last x-ray she did before she sent him home, she noticed that there were still a few small hard balls left in his colon, although she didn't think he'd have too much trouble getting them out.

She also recommended we make some dietary changes to ensure that Sunny wouldn’t have to suffer from constipation again.

Give Your Cat Wet Cat Food to Avoid Constipation

To save a little money, in recent years, we've put both our cats on a (mostly) dry cat food diet. I would give them a can of wet cat food as an occasional treat, but mostly we were sticking to the dry food diet.

This, as it turns out, was a big (costly) mistake. How much money were we saving by giving the cats only dry cat food? I can’t really say, but I do know that the diagnosis, treatment, and overnight hospital stay for Sunny was not cheap. It cost over $800!

The vet recommended the special IAMS Low-Residue Formula canned cat food, which, I later found out, costs over $2 per can (and we’re not talking really big cans here)! She also mentioned that we could add some canned pumpkin to the cats’ food to increase the water content. I haven’t tried this yet because, although it would definitely be cheaper, I just can’t imagine a cat eating pumpkin. But, then again, I’ve never tried it.

I was talking to my mother about this costly solution, and she suggested I just look at the regular brands of cat food and get the gravy cat version to give to the cats two or three times a week. That way, they’d get a little more fluid in their diet, and we wouldn’t be breaking the bank with the expensive vet recommendation, and we could (hopefully) avoid an even more expensive return trip to the hospital. The cheaper cat food seems to be working just as well as the more expensive kind. I keep checking Sunny’s litter pan use, and so far, so good!

Pay Attention to Your Cat

The take-home message from this story is this: listen to your cat. He/she will tell you when something's wrong. My cat did. I just didn't pay enough attention until it was (almost) too late.

Study your cat. Learn his/her eating habits, bathroom habit, etc. At the first sign of any problem, call your vet immediately. Don't wait like I did.

Sunny's story (thankfully) turned out fine, but there was always the possibility that it could have been more serious, and it could have ended tragically. I'm glad we called when we did. I just wish I had called the vet sooner!


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