By ALISON TURNER, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Most of us know how uncomfortable constipation can be (even if we won't admit we have it in public) -- imagine feeling that discomfort and only being able to tell someone about it with the sound "meow."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that constipation, as defined as "difficult or infrequent bowel movements," is "one of the most common health problems associated with a pet's digestive system."
If your cat doesn't enjoy at least one healthy bowel movement every day, his or her constipation could result in swelling of the colon and eventual loss of colon movement.
Additionally, constipation could be a symptom of another condition, such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, or a hernia -- none of which, we can imagine, would be your cat's meow.
How do I know if your cat is constipated? Thankfully, we don't necessarily need to keep detailed records of our cats' bowel movements to know whether or not she is constipated. Other symptoms of cat constipation include straining when trying to poop, loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, vomiting, and lack of grooming.
Why is your cat constipated?
In some ways, cats are like people: their bodies can be a mysterious, inexplicable place. But there are several possibilities for what could be causing your cat's constipation, including diet (ranging from the cat not eating enough fiber, to the cat eating too many treats that are inedible, such as string or cloth), dehydration, hairballs, an enlarged prostate gland, a tumor, a neurological disorder, abnormal colon shape, or even obesity.
How can I help out my constipated cat? Procedures that your veterinarian may try on your constipated kitty may include administering an enema, surgery, or prescribing certain medications or diets. Read below for things you can try before taking your cat to the vet (unless, of course, it's an emergency).
1. Add Fiber to Your Cat's Diet. We've all heard how important 'fiber' and 'roughage' is for our own digestive systems: it turns out our kitties need similar dietary assistance for all to run smoothly. One way to keep the pipes clean, so to speak, is to add psyllium to your cat's diet, a type of fiber that comes from a plant called Plantago ovata.
In 2011, a large team of researchers from France, Canada, and the UK, including Dr. Alexander German with the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool, analyzed how psyllium managed constipation in 66 cats.
The cats were fed a psyllium-enriched diet (which was "well tolerated," and in which "palatability was excellent.")
After two months on this diet, the "fecal consistency improved significantly," and the team concluded that the psyllium-enriched diet was "efficient in the management of recurrent constipation."
Psyllium may be added to products such as Metamucil to help lower cholesterol, relieve both constipation and diarrhea (not an easy trick), and to treat other intestinal problems.
Psyllium works because when it comes in contact with water it swells and forms a gelatin substance that helps to transport waste through the intestines.
Check your preferred pet store for dietary products containing psyllium, or ask a specialist or veterinarian about supplements: your cat is sure to thank you.
2. Warning: Cat Constipation Could Be A Tumor.
You may think that your cat's constipation is easy to ignore (hey, it's easier than diarrhea!) -- but ignoring this condition could allow something more serious to progress.
In 2009, experts with Oregon State University, including Thomas Smith with the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, studied a cat that had suffered vomiting, constipation, and reduced appetite for three weeks.
After in depth examinations, the team found a "soft tissue mass adjacent to the lower gastro-esophageal sphincter" (basically, the cat was constipated because a tumor blocked the exit). The mass was removed surgically.
There may be nothing you can do to prevent tumors (tumors happen), but the faster you diagnose the unwanted lump, the better. Bottom line: ignoring your cat's constipation could be allowing a tumor to grow until it's too late.
3. Watch Out For Hairballs. Cartoon kitties dramatize the consequences of a hairball in cartoons, but they never show how such a strange phenomenon occurs.
Usually, kitties get hairballs from routine self-cleaning, from which loose strands gather in the stomach or intestine.
More often than not, the cat is able to retch and vomit out the hairball (some of you know this procedure well) -- but sometimes more serious blocking can occur, resulting in vomiting, anorexia, abdominal pain, and constipation.
The most extreme build up of hair inside your cat will require surgery for removal -- however, there are changes you can make now to help prevent the situation from getting so serious. Experts suggest certain laxatives, or milk to induce vomiting, and, perhaps most attractively, adding dietary fiber to your kitty's diet.
In 2004, Catriona Giffard led a group of researchers with the Research and Development department at Masterfoods Australia New Zealand out of Wodonga, Australia, who focused their work around how dietary fiber could help rid cats of their hairball problem.
The team experimented with a chewable tablet composed of psyllium husk (see above) and bark from the slippery elm plant, a substance that is sometimes used as a diuretic and as an emollient.
Cats with a "high frequency" of hairballs (a minimum of several hairballs every week) were given the tablet twice daily for two weeks, in addition to their normal diet. Cats taking the supplement "exhibited fewer of each of the common clinical signs of hairballs," showing 29% fewer signs of hairballs.
It might be hard to find your own sources of psyllium husk and slippery elm bark -- however, the experiment above may suggest that adding a bit of fiber from any source could help gathering hairs to pass more smoothly through your kitty's tummy.
4. Dehydration and Constipation: Your Cat Needs Water. Picture a dry, mud-cracked desert: now imagine trying to push that kind of material out of your body. Yes, this is an unpleasant image, but it may be a way to encourage you to keep your cat hydrated. The Cornell Feline Health Center notes that inadequate access to drinking water is a common cause of constipation in cats. But what if we lead the cat to the water bowl but can't make him drink?
Several studies have suggested that dietary sodium stimulates hormones that drive thirst. Accordingly, in 2004, Amanda Hawthorne and Peter Markwell with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, UK, analyzed how adding dietary sodium to a cat's diet affected the total water intake and urine volume.
The study used two "groups" of diets, one with a sodium content of 1.1-1.6 grams of sodium/400kcal, and one of 0.7 grams of sodium/400 kcal. A total of 55 cats participated in the study, fed on either diet for 21 days.
Their water intake, number of urinations, and urine volume was recorded daily. Results showed that cats eating the diet that was higher in sodium showed "increased water turnover and urine volume" compared to cats eating the diet with less sodium. The team concludes that the higher sodium diet "may help maintain urinary tract health in cats."
If something as simple as adding sodium to your cat's diet decreases his risk for urinary tract infections, proper hydration, and constipation, it would be hard to not do so: right?
5. Don't Give Up on Dry Food: Moderation is Key. You may have read around that cats aren't meant to eat dry food: they're carnivores, so what are they doing with all this kibble? While cats need protein and liquid in their diet (see above about hydration), work from Denmark suggests that restricting all dry food from our cats' diet is not a healthy practice.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Copenhagen, including M. Dimopoulou with the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, encountered two three-month-old female kittens with a history of constipation and other symptoms. The cats "had been fed a diet composed almost exclusively of meat" and showed "severe osteopenia" (osteopenia is low bone mineral density).
Sadly, one of the cats was given euthanasia, and post-mortem examination suggested "nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism and fibrous osteodystrophy," two conditions that we don't need the details on to know that they're undesirable.
These findings in the deceased cat encouraged the researchers to alter the diet of the survivor to a "balanced commercial diet." As early as six weeks later, they saw that bone mineralization "improved," a progress that continued during follow up of up to twenty-two weeks later.
Many of us have learned the potential negative consequences of the fad diet the hard way -- for ourselves. Let's not put our kitties through the same hoops.