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Caring for Constipated Kitties

I thought I might write a few words about this sticky subject after seeing a particularly unfortunate case the other day.  Minty is a slightly grumpy, independent and strong-willed 15 year old cat who until a week ago, had been ageing gracefully.  She had lost a bit of weight and done a bit of vomiting, and had the occasional faecal ‘accident’ inside the house. But she was eating well and seemed well in herself, though she usually kept herself to herself.  The owner went away for the weekend and left Minty some dry food and water down as she had done many times before to no ill effect, but when she returned home on Sunday evening she noticed that something was wrong - Minty was crying in the litter tray.  When she looked inside, she realised that Minty hadn’t actually defecated at all in the past few days.  When I saw her the following day, Minty was dehydrated and I could feel a large, hard mass of stool in her colon. X-rays showed that her condition was quite severe, so we anaesthetised her and performed an enema, manually removing some of the stuck faeces and softening what remained.  We also gave her some IV fluids to rehydrate her, and lots of pain medicine as both the procedure and the condition can be very painful.  Fortunately for Minty, she recovered well from her anaesthetic and within a few days started to pass stools on her own again with the help of some other medications.  But if it hadn’t been caught and treated when it was, it could have been a very different outcome.

What causes constipation in cats?

In Minty’s case, the cause ended up being dehydration, as a result of kidney disease that hadn’t previously been diagnosed.  A blood test done at the time of her anaesthetic picked up on the condition (which hadn’t been noticed at home due to the cat’s independent lifestyle).  Dehydration causes the stool to become firm and more likely to get stuck on the way out.  But other causes include neurological or muscular disorders or pain (such as arthritis) which prevent the cat from being able to defecate normally.  Tumours or other masses can obstruct the intestine and cause constipation, as can pelvic fractures which cause the space between the pelvic bones to narrow.  Behavioural issues can affect defecation as well, as a cat that is uncomfortable with their environment may put off defecating longer than is healthy.  Rarely, other diseases like hypothyroidism or even some drugs themselves can result in constipation. How do you know if your cat is constipated? This can actually be trickier than it sounds!  Many cats will defecate exclusively outside so you may never see their faeces or watch them defecate.  Even those that will use a litter tray tend to do so when nobody is around.  So it’s an easy condition to miss until the situation becomes quite desperate as in Minty’s case.  Signs to look out for include:
  • Hard, dry stools
  • Smaller stools
  • Less frequent stools
  • Difficulty defecating
  • Pain (sometimes displayed as a loud howl but not always) whilst defecating
  • Vomiting and loss of appetite in severe cases
  • They may also make repeated trips to the litter tray without actually producing anything, but it’s often hard to tell whether they’re unable to urinate or defecate (and it’s important to make the distinction as being unable to urinate for a male cat is a medical emergency!).  And if they’re severely constipated, they can actually produce liquid stools that look like diarrhoea, just in case it wasn’t complicated enough... What should you do if you think your cat is constipated? If you think your cat’s stools are looking different or you think they’re having problems urinating or defecating, ring your vet for an appointment.  They’ll take a feel of the abdomen and may be able to feel a large mass of faeces stuck in the colon.  If they suspect constipation, they may run a series of tests such as x-rays to see the extent of the problem, along with blood and urine tests to try to find out why it happened in the first place.  If the problem is severe, your cat may need to be anaesthetised for an enema to remove the impacted stools (one of the highlights of our day, I assure you!), or they may use a smaller type that doesn’t require anaesthesia.  The vet will then discuss with you some of the things that you can do to help prevent a relapse of the condition.  Some cases, however, are so severe that they’re actually classified as ‘megacolon’ which is just as it sounds – the colon stretches so large that it isn’t able to work as a muscle anymore to push the faeces out.  In this case, surgery and/or lifelong medication may be required, or even euthanasia if treatment fails to give them any relief. How can you prevent it? If your cat is prone to constipation, or if you have noticed any of the above symptoms, your vet may recommend one of several different treatments that can be used to prevent the problem from recurring.  One is also a hairball remedy – a flavoured paste that contains soft paraffin to help things move along - that cats generally don’t mind taking.  Another is a liquid that makes the stools softer, but cats don’t tend to like the taste very much.  Other remedies are available, but may be harder to get a hold of so aren’t as common, your vet may look into this further if necessary.  However, one of the very best and easiest things you can do to prevent constipation is to stop feeding dry food and switch to a wet cat food.  This will increase the amount of water in their diet significantly and help prevent dehydration.  There are other ways to encourage your cat to drink more, such as flavouring their water or adding even more water to their food along with making sure there is always lots of fresh, clean water available throughout the house.  It’s also important that the litter tray is kept as clean as possible to encourage them to use it frequently.  And of course, you’ll also want to address any underlying medical condition that may have contributed to the constipation. In most cases, constipation is a mild, temporary condition that responds to simple changes in diet or gentle medications, especially if caught early, so if you think your cat might be affected, be sure to speak with your vet right away. If your cat is constipated please contact your vet for advice. If you are worried about your cat but not sure it needs to see a vet please click here.
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    What NOT to feed your cat.

    Gizmo eatingClients often ask me what they should feed their cats. It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is far from straight forward. The biggest debate amongst veterinarians at the moment is whether or not a cat should be fed dry food or wet food, or both. Personally, I tend to lean towards wet food as it seems to be the more natural option for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into in this article. But I don’t necessarily recommend that to all of my clients. My own cat, for example, loves almost any dry diet but seems to hate wet food, so this is clearly not a good option for her. Being fussy creatures by nature, in most cases, the best food for your cat is the one that they will eat. But this isn’t always the case. Read on to see some examples of what NOT to feed your cat... “I feed my cat only the finest fillet steak! Costs me a fortune, so it must be good for her, right?” Short and long answer to that one – absolutely not. It’s true that in the world of well-balanced, scientifically formulated complete pet foods, you generally get what you pay for. More expensive foods, on the whole, tend to be of better quality than cheaper ones. But that only applies to complete, well-balanced pet foods. Just because a human food is expensive (ie, humans really like it and therefore are willing to pay a high price for it), doesn’t mean it’s going to do your cat any good at all. Sure, a bit of steak here and there isn’t going to hurt them, but by feeding your cat exclusively the muscle meat of any animal, they will quickly become deficient in a wide range of vitamins and minerals. There is, for example, very little calcium in muscle meat, to name just one. Other expensive human foods can even be dangerous for cats, even in small volumes. So if you ever feel like splashing out on your cat’s diet, put back the caviar and foie gras and ask your vet for their recommendation instead. “But sometimes all she’ll eat are her treats, so I just give her those!” The problem with this one is that unless your cat is extremely ill and you’re happy to get them to eat anything at all, this simply isn’t true. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to training their owners at mealtimes. And they’re not stupid. A normal, healthy cat will not starve itself. But they’ll certainly have you believe that they will. A normal cat (again, we’re not talking about sick cats here) who only eats treats, or some rubbish, unbalanced cat food, does so because their owner keeps providing it. Take it away and offer a balanced cat food, and eventually they will eat it. They may make you feel like you are the most horrible human on the planet for denying them their favourite food, but they will eat it. OK, you may have to try a few different flavours before you find one that they won’t argue about with you, but there is a good cat food out there that they will eat. And they will thank you with their good health, though not necessarily in any other way... Look at it another way, if somebody offered you a salad and a chocolate bar, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eat the salad tomorrow if that’s all there was! A word of caution though, if you try to change your cat’s diet, always do so gradually by mixing it in for a few days to avoid stomach upset. And if they really do go for more than 24-48 hours without eating their new food, speak with your vet for advice because it can be dangerous for a cat to not eat for too long and there may be an underlying medical problem that you didn’t know about. “My cats deserve a special treat, so I give them tuna for dinner every night” And I’m not talking about a complete and balanced tuna-flavoured cat food here, but tinned tuna for humans. In this case, it’s not the tuna itself that’s the problem (unless of course your cat is unfortunate enough to be allergic to tuna), rather the fact that it is fed as a meal every night. Too much fish can have inappropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, and could lead to other problems like thiamine deficiency if raw fish is fed too often. There can also be low levels of toxins like mercury in some fish that won’t harm you if eaten occasionally but can build up if eaten in large quantities. It’s also worth noting that it is particularly important not to feed more than just the very occasional small treat of liver, as eating too much liver can cause serious vitamin toxicities. Like most things, moderation is key. Again, you might enjoy eating pizza for dinner every night, but it probably wouldn’t do your body any good. If you’d like to give your cats a treat, try giving them a different treat each time, provided each one is safe and not too high in fat, and give just a small amount of it, not a whole meal’s worth. “I’m sorry, did you say crisps?” Of course, there are some human foods that shouldn’t even be fed in moderation. You’d be amazed what some people will admit to feeding their cats as treats ‘because they really seem to like it’. Sure, your cat may love crisps, but they have absolutely no nutritional value for them (or us, really...), and are simply high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates. They may not necessarily hurt them, but they certainly don’t need them, and it’s not difficult to find them a more appropriate snack. Common human foods that probably shouldn’t be fed to cats in any quantity, no matter how much they seem to like them, include sweet or savoury biscuits, processed sandwich meat, and chips among many other things. You could also add milk and cheese to this list, although I haven’t had much luck convincing clients to give these treats up as they are used so commonly. Cats would not and probably should not naturally drink milk, and can in fact be allergic to it, it is only our domestication of them that has created this ‘need’. And then there are things like onions, chocolate, alcohol, tea, coffee, grapes and raisins that can be toxic in even small quantities so these should never be given to cats. Daisy pinching foodWhether the problem is finding a food that your cat seems to like, your cat constantly crying out for food, or your own overwhelming desire to treat them to something you think is nice, it’s important to remember that as the carer of this domestic animal you are generally in control of your cat’s diet. If your cat is overweight, chances are you’re feeding it too much, no matter how much they tell you they’re starving. If your otherwise normal, healthy cat will only eat the most expensive smoked salmon, it’s because you offered it to them and they decided it was good enough to hold out for. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a cat that hunts you down and cries for a tasty treat even though you know they shouldn’t have it, be strong and walk away, or better yet, try some kind of distraction such as a toy or a good stroke. It’s not always food they’re crying out for, sometimes it’s the attention of being fed. But if it persists, be sure to take them to the vet for a checkup because constantly crying out for food can actually be a sign of hyperthyroidism or other serious illness. Whatever the cause, if you find yourself with a feline feeding issue, speak with your vet because many times the solution is easier than you think. And remember, just because your cat wants it, doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest to have it! If you are worried about any specific symptoms your cat may be showing, talk to your Vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent it may be.
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