One of the common problems that we find in cats is constipation, particularly senior cats. These cats will often have a history of recurring constipation that continues to get worse until it becomes a clinical problem. They typically are treated with supplements to soften the stool and in the beginning, they may help. As time goes by, the constipation turns to obstipation and then the cat goes to the vet clinic for enemas. This often happens several times a year.
Constipation, hard stools, can be caused by two different problems. The first, and most common, is dehydration. The kidneys are responsible for regulating water but the large intestine plays a major role in water regulation as the water is re-cycled back into the system from the large intestine. When dehydration occurs, the body is trying desperately to hang onto its water, so the water is removed from the fecal material, making it harder in consistency, leading to constipation. If the constipation continues to get worse, the cat cannot have the bowel movement and requires an enema to remove the fecal material.
The cat’s physiological system is set up to get its water from the food. That is why it can be difficult to get a cat to drink water. Most people feed cats kibble cat food which has only about 8% moisture content in the food. Fresh food has about 85% moisture in it, so it is not hard to imagine that feeding kibble will lead to dehydration and constipation.
The dehydration that is occurring from feeding kibble continues throughout the cat’s life and stresses the kidneys and in time, they have difficulty doing their job regulating the water. This adds to the problem of constipation in senior cats and predisposes chronic kidney disease as well. This also explains why one out of three cats die from kidney failure.
Obviously, the best way to deal with constipation in cats is to feed a fresh food diet that is high in moisture. This not only benefits the hydration situation, but promotes normal health and well being. If the cat has been on kibble and starts to have bouts of constipation, this should be seen as an alarm that dehydration is becoming a clinical problem and should be addressed immediately. Most vets don’t promote feeding fresh foods, so you will likely need to do the transition to a fresh diet on your own. If you cannot feed fresh food, then canned cat food is better than kibble in regards to water regulation simply because there is more water in canned food than in kibble.
There are many commercial products available for cats with persistent constipation. Unfortunately, many of these have large amounts of sugar in them so that the cat will allow you to give the supplement. Also, these are just temporary benefits and in time will no longer be helpful. I recommend natural supplements like psyllium husk powder as a bulk laxative, mixed with some fresh food.
The second and least common cause of constipation in cats is called intestinal segmental dysfunction. This means that the bowel is not moving normally and is usually considered a neurological problem. The bowel has its own neurological system controlled by the autonomic nervous system. This movement is called peristalsis. The movement or peristalsis causes the stomach sounds that you hear when you put your ear against your pet’s tummy.
Cats that have segmental deficits do not have a normal peristalsis and the movement of the bowel slows down. When the bowel slows down then more water is reabsorbed into the system and constipation occurs. As the constipation occurs, the hard bowel movement will often stretch the bowel, causing the muscles of the bowel to become flabby, much like a balloon that has been filled and the air has been released. The combination of neurological dysfunction and over-dilated bowel leads to more constipation and obstipation. Some of these cats have to be sedated in order to manually break down the fecal material and irrigate the bowel in order to evacuate the feces. I have seen cats that had to have this done every couple of months.
Many vets will miss the diagnosis of segmental dysfunction and continue to treat the constipation with stool softeners like Lactulose or Miralax. These do help, but not enough and the failure of these products to eliminate the problem should suggest that the etiology of the constipation is neurological and not dehydration.
Unfortunately, there are no drugs that will specifically eliminate this problem. The best treatment for this is acupuncture as it is an energetic modality that works great for getting the nervous system to work again. There are specific acupuncture points for gut movement as well as treating yin deficiencies causing dehydration. I would highly recommend finding a good holistic vet trained in Chinese medicine and acupuncture. It will be the best chance for the cats with chronic constipation.