Cat’s bowel habits and health conditions
To quote a song from one of my favorite TV shows, Scrubs – everything comes down to poo. People in the medical field – whether human or animal – can get a good idea of the health status of a creature by examining and testing fecal matter. This blog is going to discuss feline defecation habits, constipation, a health concern called megacolon and prevention/treatments for the health problems.
It is important to take note of your pet’s normal bathroom habits, so that you can be more aware of issues earlier when something comes up. And trust me, if you own a pet for its entire life, there will be at least once in its life, where a medical concern will happen and it will need to see a veterinarian outside of routine care. I don’t want to be completely disgusting but a lot of the time, your pet’s health care team (veterinarian and technicians) will need a description of what body fluids/excrement/vomit looks like and it is okay to use food descriptions to relay that information. For example, cat’s normal feces look very similar to regular size tootsie rolls – both in size (tubular and a few inches long) and color. A cat defecates one to three times a day. If your cat hasn’t defecated in 18-24 hours, you need to call the veterinary hospital.
Across any species, there should NEVER be blood in the feces. Blood can appear like bright red spots in the feces or very dark that makes the entire fecal sample look black. If there is noticeable blood, you need to take that pet to the veterinarian right away and take a fresh stool sample along.
Diarrhea can come in many different forms: It can be completely liquid or “cow paddy/ soft-serve ice cream”. If your pet is having any form of diarrhea, it can cause dehydration and malnutrition in your pet. Do not let your pet go longer than 48 hours of continuous diarrhea without being seen by a vet. The exception is if your pet is also vomiting, in addition to having diarrhea, they need to be seen immediately – DO NOT WAIT more than 24 hours – it could be a life-threatening condition.
There are several possibilities as to why a cat can become constipated. The list includes: diet, injury, age, infections, inadequate water intake, medication reactions, blockage, intestinal tumor, neurological disease and metabolic disorders. Many of these can cause reoccurring constipation issues. The following paragraphs will go into more details about each of these possibilities.
Cats are carnivores – meaning their natural diet consists of meat products. Naturally, they get little fiber in their diets, which can make them prone to constipation. The cat’s body evolved over time to process the nutrients they needed from their meals and excrete the unusable parts. When we domesticated cats, their body has stayed the same but we have changed their eating style and habits. Lower quality commercial cat food doesn’t have the proper or correct amount of ingredients to keep appropriate gut motility going.
Cats that have sustained a hind quarter injury (like a broken hip or pelvis) can have their pelvic canal narrow when it heals. When the fecal material tries to pass through this narrowed canal, it can become harder to defecate. It can take years after the initial trauma before it becomes apparent that there is a defecation issue from a hind quarter injury.
Indoor cats are now living longer 18+ years and think about how 88+ year old people move around. Arthritis makes it hard for them to move. Your senior cat may have a lot more difficulty moving around like it used to and climbing into a litterbox might be like the 88 year old person climbing a mountain. Spondylosis is a condition where changes to the spinal disks can make it harder for older cats to squat comfortably when trying to go to the bathroom. Also, intact males can develop an enlarged prostate glands that can press on the colon and suppress the amount of fecal material that can come out properly.
Most commonly, constipation is a result and sign of dehydration. Water aids in digestion and if the cat isn’t drinking enough it can create drier fecal material in the colon, making it more difficult to pass.
Certain medications can cause constipation. Never give your pet any human medications. If your veterinarian prescribes a medication, you may want to ask them if there are any side effects like constipation to be aware of.
Cats consistently groom themselves, making them ingest more hair, which can make passing stool harder.
Neurological disease and metabolic disorders (like kidney failure, diabetes and hyperthyroidism) can cause bowel issues.
DVM360 has a great quick reference chart.
If your believe your pet is experiencing constipation, complete this constipation Form and take it along to your vet appointment to help the veterinarian get to the bottom of the issue.
Constipation left untreated will render the cat incapable of emptying the bowels. The intestines will become so stretched that the bacteria from the feces will move into the bloodstream causing systemic illness – which can lead to death. If your cat is consistently straining to defecate (tenesmus), it can result in a perineal hernia. If your cat has chronic constipation, this can lead to obstipation and/or megacolon.
If constipation is not treated it can become a more severe condition called obstipation. Obstipation is the inability to defecate. 70% of cats that have obstipation are males.
Megacolon is the term used when the colon becomes dilated and unable to function properly. Cats between the ages of 5-9 years old are usually affected with megacolon. This condition will become fatal if not medically treated.
There are 3 main aspects when the veterinarian is diagnosing constipation, obstipation and megacolon. The first step is the physical exam. This allows the veterinarian to get their hands on the cat to not only check vital signs but examine how the abdomen and prostate feels. Second step is labwork. Blood work checks hydration level, electrolyte imbalance and kidney/liver/ thyroid organ functions. Lastly, radiographs will allow the veterinarian to check the status of bowels and any skeletal issues.
There are five steps that are taken to “treat” a constipated cat.
Step 1 – Rehydrate and maintain hydration in the cat.
Step 2 – Remove the feces with Pet enema and/or manual extraction.
Step 3 – Modify the cat’s diet.
Step 4 – Institute laxative therapy.
Step 5 – Administer promotility drugs
There are two separate lines of thought when it comes to the type of diet a chronic constipated cat should have. One side believes the cat should be on a high fiber diet along with medications is the first line treatment. The cat can be offered canned pumpkin and other products like Metamucil. The other side states fiber absorbs more water and exacerbates the problem. This side believes that feeding a low-residue, high-digestibility diet creates a greater amount of nutrients that are able to be absorbed by the cat and there is less undigested material passing to the colon. Thus, preserving fecal water. Just like with people, individualized care for an animal is critical. The veterinarian will need to reassess the cat to ensure that the diet is having the desired effect.
There are two medications that are typically dispensed for a cat with bowel issues:
- Lactulose – a mild cathartic (helps speed defecation) and stool softener.
- Cisapride – stimulates colonic motility.
The following can be used as both preventative measures and after treatment care:
- Feeding smaller, more frequent feedings will help with a decrease in the amount of food being “processed” all at once and increase a greater volume of water be drank. Wet food will also increase the water intake. Remember, we want to make sure we keep the kitty hydrated at all times.
- Water intake is very important, especially with a cat that has bathroom issues. You need to make sure that they have fresh, clean water regularly. It is okay if your dog and cat likes to share a water bowl, but it is important to make sure that there is at least one smaller water bowl that only your cat can reach. I have been around A LOT of cats and a majority of them love moving water. By providing a pet water fountain can entice them to drink more frequently.
- Don’t forget the basic environmental needs each cat must have to sustain a happy life. If you have a stressed-out cat, they are more prone to have a bathroom issue. If you have more than one cat in the house, each cat needs to have their own food and water bowls; plus one extra litterbox more than the number of cats you have in the house. Each bowl and litterbox needs to be separated to minimize bullying from one of the other cats. Even multiple, separate sites for perches, resting sites, cat trees/ scratching areas and toys will lower the amount of stress your cat will experience.
- Litterboxes need to be at least 1.5 times the length of the cat. Having different types of litterboxes hooded/non-hooded, high/low sided boxes can ensure the box itself isn’t the source of the bathroom issues.
- Brushing your cat daily/weekly (depending on coat length) can cut down on the amount of hair that is digested.
Words of Warning
- NEVER use an over the counter (human) enema on a cat – it is toxic to them.
- NEVER attempt to give a cat an enema at home unless instructed by the veterinarian.
- Mineral oil should be avoided because it can be easily inhaled accidentally into the respiratory tract. Because it is mineral-based in can never be removed from the body and the immune system will forever attempt to fight it with inflammatory granulomas.
A cat’s bathroom habits are among the first thing that can signal a health problem. Remember, if you notice any symptoms including abnormal behaviors, poor appetite, vomiting, lethargy, unusual vocalizations, constipation or diarrhea … it is of the upmost important to have a vet examine your cat right away. Early correction and management will help prevent irreversible problems from developing.