Cats have an amazing system for conserving water. Their kidneys are able to keep the moisture needed by the body even when drinking water is scarce. That’s why cats have a low thirst level compared with some other animals.
Constipation in cats is caused directly or indirectly by dehydration. The first order of business to get things moving is to rehydrate your cat. In mild cases, feeding her canned cat food with a side of chicken broth may be enough to resolve the problem.
What Causes Constipation in Cats? Dehydration.
Now it’s time for some borderline gross discussion of a cat’s physiological pooping mechanism.
After your kitty swallows his food it is digested in the stomach. Then it moves to the first part of the small intestine where it’s broken down even more by bile and pancreatic enzymes. The next part of the small intestine absorbs nutrients from the food which now looks something like gravy.
Once the remains of the food reach the large intestine, there’s not much left besides indigestible fiber and water. The large intestine absorbs water from the food waste according to messages from the body based on how much water is needed at the time.
The last part of the large intestine is the rectum. That’s where the dried food waste collects until the cat has poops to get rid of it.
Constipation happens when too much water is taken out of the food waste product. Why would this happen? The large intestine is just doing what it’s told to by the body: removing water from food waste so it can be used for metabolism.
When the body isn’t getting enough water or is losing too much water it will need to conserve all it can by removing it from food waste, i.e. feces. When feces become dry, they’re much more difficult to push out of the body. The stuck fecal matter essentially creates an intestinal blockage.
Another way feces become too dry is when they’re retained in the rectum for too long. This could happen when your kitty can’t get to the litter tray due to anxiety, competition from other cats or even pain. A less frequent cause of fecal dehydration is abnormal contraction of the colon or the presence of a mass blocking the colon or rectum.
The colon and rectum continue to absorb water as long as the feces are present. The fecal matter just gets drier and drier as time goes on until it’s rock-hard and painful to pass.
Symptoms of Cat Constipation
Most cats have at least a few of these symptoms, but not always. It can be hard to tell the difference between bladder trouble and constipation. Any of these symptoms are a good cause for concern and a visit to the animal clinic.
- Defecating less frequently (especially if the animal is eating normally)
- Straining in the litter box (can also be a bladder problem)
- Vocalizing in the litter box (can also be a bladder problem)
- More frequent visits to the litter box (can also be a bladder problem)
- Licking tail and bottom more than usual (can also be a bladder problem)
- Anus protruding more than normal sometimes with poop visible
- Blood on the poop that is passed
- Dry, hard stools, either larger or smaller than normal
- Pooping outside litter box
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
Constipation is pretty common in the modern house cat. A middle-aged to older cat is more likely to have difficulty pooping. Cat breeds that are overrepresented in the disease include Siamese and Manx.
In a 2019 study, researchers found that obese, older cats and those with chronic kidney disease or previous episodes of constipation were more likely to present to the emergency department (1).
Diseases That Can Lead to Constipation
Now that we’ve established cat constipation is a secondary problem caused by dehydration, let’s talk about primary diseases that can lead to low body water and trouble pooping.
|Disease||How It Causes Constipation|
|Kidney Disease||The kidneys don’t retain water normally, causing generalized dehydration.|
|Diabetes||Excess glucose in the blood causes increased water loss through the kidneys.|
|Hyperthyroidism||Cats with hyperthyroidism often have deteriorating kidney function which leads to dehydration.|
|Inflammatory Bowel Disease||Inflammation in the intestines may cause decreased water resorption. Inflamed tissue also tends to have abnormal intestinal contractions.|
|Cancer||Tumors in the intestine or other abdominal organs or the muscles and bones of the pelvis can interfere with normal bowel movements.|
|Neurological Problems||Cats can be born with abnormal pelvic nerves (like in Manx cats) or acquire a problem secondary to trauma, cancer, etc.|
|Pain||Pain can come from musculoskeletal problems like arthritis or spinal changes (2). Soft tissue problems like rectal strictures and anals sac inflammation can also cause pain during defecation.|
|Dietary Issues||Cats who ingest very large amounts of hair from self-grooming or otherwise are at risk for constipation. Hairballs are more likely to occur in long-haired cats. Eating a large amount of bone can also cause dry, hard feces.|
|Drugs||Anti-diarrheal drugs can slow intestinal contractions and dry out the intestinal contents. Diuretics like Lasix can also lead to dehydration.|
|Inactivity||Lack of body movement due to injury or confinement can cause decreased intestinal contractions.|
|Obesity||Physical difficulty getting to the litter box may decrease the frequency of defecation, leading to retention of hard, dry poop in the rectum.|
|Anxiety||Can decrease intestinal contractions. Also, if a cat is too nervous to visit the litter box often enough, fecal waste can become dry and difficult to pass.|
How Long Can a Cat Safely Go Without Pooping?
Healthy cats pass stool once or twice a day. Decreased food intake will lead to decreased production of feces. It could be more an issue of not eating than not pooping.
Another way you can be fooled is that cats sometimes resort to “stealth pooping” in strange places like closets and under beds. Take a good look around if you don’t see cat poop in the litter box.
If you’re sure your kitty hasn’t pooped in 24 hours, you could be dealing with a constipated cat. Try some of the remedies below if your pet feels fine other than not pooping. If 36-48 hours pass with no stool produced, it’s time to see the veterinarian.
Megacolon is kind of a fun-sounding word used to describe an awful disease. Serious, chronic constipation (obstipation) can damage the tissue of the colon so the muscles no longer contract normally. The tube of the colon becomes stretched out and flaccid so the animal can’t push the waste out no matter how hard they try.
Megacolon is all too common in cats (especially Manx and Siamese breeds) and is usually the result of chronic constipation. So you can see it’s really important to intervene and treat the problem as soon as you recognize it.
Once megacolon occurs, treatment options are limited and poor quality of life ensues without aggressive intervention.
Can Constipation Kill a Cat?
Prolonged, extreme constipation could be deadly to your cat in a couple of ways.
As I outlined above impacted feces put excessive pressure on the colon and rectal tissue and can cause irreversible damage. The smooth muscles eventually stop working so that feces cannot be pushed out. If a kitty can’t poop, he’ll stop eating and get progressively sicker until he dies.
The other deadly factor is that retained fecal material retained may contain toxins that are reabsorbed into the body. These toxins can make a cat feel sick and not want to eat. You might also see weakness, poor appetite and vomiting.
How to Make a Cat Poop When Constipated
First, understand you could be getting into dangerous territory attempting to treat a bad case of constipation at home. I strongly urge you to get help from your veterinarian if your pet hasn’t passed stool in 36 or more hours.
For those who are still eating and acting normal but haven’t pooped in 12-24 hours, you can try some simple home remedies safely.
Increase Water Intake
You can do this by feeding canned/moist food, preferably in place of dry food. I realize there are many cats who hate canned food, so you’ll have to experiment to see if you can convince your buddy that it’s good.
Try sprinkling some grated parmesan cheese on top, warming it to body temperature, mixing in a little water/broth/tuna water. You might also try spoon-feeding or placing the food on a saucer rather than a bowl.
Some of these picky kitties will take Gerber chicken baby food (use baby food with no onion or garlic in it). Try warming it up to body temperature first.
Other ways to increase water intake include offering warmed broth or the water from a tuna can straight. Some people find their cats drink more when provided a flowing water source like the fountain shown below, but it may be more of a long-term solution rather than a quick fix for hardened stool.
There are many different kinds of laxatives that work in different ways. Some cause water to be drawn into the colon, some irritate the colon and others have a softening effect on the surface of feces. Not all of these remedies work for all cats and some can cause worse problems when used chronically.
If you give a laxative and your kitty still hasn’t had a pooped after 24 hours, don’t keep repeating the treatment. Get your buddy to the animal hospital!
Here’s a list of common laxatives from most to least preferred:
My favorite cat laxative is Miralax® powder. You can buy it over the counter, the flavor of the plain version is neutral and it is well-tolerated when used as directed here. Miralax causes water to be pulled into the colon so stools get softer. It might take ⅛-¼ teaspoon two to three times a day mixed with moist food or broth to improve trouble pooping.
Psyllium is a form of fiber used for the prevention of constipation in humans. Fiber has a bulking and moistening effect on intestinal waste. This works for some but can make constipation worse in others so proceed cautiously.
The dosing range for this psyllium is 1-4 teaspoons mixed with food one to two times per day. Psyllium is better used as prevention rather than treatment of acute constipation.
Canned pumpkin is a popular home remedy for bowel problems. Pumpkin has fiber in it that can bulk up stools. Some cats willingly eat it on their own others refuse.
If you could get your cat to eat ¼ cup of pumpkin per day, she’d be getting about 1.8 grams of fiber. That’s not much compared to the 3 grams of fiber in just one teaspoon of Metamucil. Bottom line: if your kitty likes it, try it because it could help long-term but don’t count on it to clear up an acute bowel stoppage.
Some vets recommend bisacodyl 5 mg by mouth once a day as a sort of last resort for feline constipation. This medication increases contraction in the colon. It might work for mild to moderate constipation but could cause undue pain and injury for animals with severe constipation. Please consult your vet before using this kind of medicine.
White Petrolatum/Cat Lax®
Cat Lax might work as a maintenance treatment for cats that have occasional hard stool, but it’s unlikely to help a more serious case. The product is messy and it can be difficult to get enough into your kitty to be therapeutic.
Magnesium Hydroxide/Milk of Magnesia®
Magnesium draws water into the large intestine, softening the stool. This remedy is relatively safe, but it can be challenging to get a feline to take it since many are minty liquids. It’s also easy to over-do it and cause diarrhea. Don’t give more than ½ to 1 teaspoon by mouth per day without consulting your vet.
Docusate sodium comes as a capsule to be taken orally. In the large intestine, it acts as a stool softener by allowing more water to penetrate it. This medication may be less effective than Miralax®. But docusate is relatively safe when given 50 mg orally once a day, but should not be used as a sole long-term solution.
Senna/sennoside is a natural bowel remedy derived from a plant. Taken orally, it has a stimulatory effect on the colon. Senna is generally not recommended for use in cats as it can cause cramping, vomiting, and loose stool.
Oral Mineral Oil
This is more of an old-fashioned remedy that is no longer recommended. The problem is that mineral oil is too easy for cats to breathe into their lungs. If that happens, severe pneumonia could cause a much bigger problem than a sluggish bowel.
An enema involves introducing water, mineral oil, glycerin, etc. into the rectum. This has the effect of stool softener and also stimulates the smooth muscles to contract. Suppositories are similar in that they’re capsules introduced via the anus to deliver stool softeners.
I don’t recommend giving cats enemas or suppositories at home. It can be difficult for pet owners to do, it can cause cats pain if done improperly. It’s not unusual for cats to become distressed after an enema and in some cases, the procedure could be deadly.
I’ve known of cats who died after well-meaning owners administered a phosphate-containing Fleet® enema (4). Never use those for cats!
Please leave enema and suppository administration to your vet!
Can I Give My Cat Olive Oil?
Giving a cat any kind of oil by mouth for acute bowel trouble can be tricky. As I mentioned above, mineral oil can be aspirated into the lungs and the same possibility exists for olive oil.
While small doses of olive oil added to food probably won’t hurt your pet, large doses of dietary fat can wreak havoc on a cat’s digestion since it makes the pancreas go into overdrive. If you give enough olive oil to soften stuck poo, your kitty could end up with a worse problem like diarrhea or pancreatitis.
Regularly adding olive oil to your cat’s food will add a lot of calories which leads to weight gain. Obese cats have worse problems with sluggish bowels than those of a healthy weight.
We have safer and more effective treatment options for cat constipation than olive oil, so just skip this one.
Vet Diagnosis & Treatment
Feline constipation isn’t always obvious. You might see your cat straining in the litter box, but is it because of bladder pain or bowel trouble? A urinary tract infection can cause very similar signs.
And sometimes cats strain when they have intestinal cramps from diarrhea but pass very little feces so it seems like they’re constipated.
If you do end up at the vet clinic to treat your cat’s symptoms, here’s what you can expect…
Physical Exam: The vet will look at, listen to and feel all over your cat’s body. They might be able to feel hard feces in the colon.
Radiographs (X-rays) & Ultrasound: Abdominal radiographs are pretty good at showing large amounts of poop in the colon and rectum. Megacolon can also show up on x-rays. Some abdominal tumors show up on x-rays but ultrasound is better at finding soft tissue tumors. Ultrasound can also evaluate intestinal contraction.
Blood Tests: These check for kidney problems, diabetes and hyperthyroidism which are often associated with constipation.
Enema: Your vet will likely administer an enema to your cat as a first line of treatment. We often like to keep the cat in the clinic for a few hours of observation after the procedure.
Sedation for Manual Fecal Extraction: If an enema doesn’t produce a bowel movement, the vet might use sedation so they can manually remove some of the impaction. In many cases, there is one large piece blocking everything behind it.
Sedation and pain medication prevent your cat from feeling the discomfort often associated with the procedure.
IV or Subcutaneous Fluids: I almost always give constipated cats fluids under their skin (or IV if they’re hospitalized) to help rehydrate them. This gets them on the road to healing and helps prevent the recurrence of stuck stool in the next few days.
Prescription Medications: You will probably go home with at least one medication or supplement. Lactulose is a liquid laxative that works pretty well in the short-term but many cats can be switched over to Miralax® which is easier to administer.
Cisapride, a drug that helps the colon contract, is prescribed for cats with chronic problems. Pilocarpine is a less common medication that also stimulates the colon when a tiny amount is given orally.
Cost of Treatment
The cost of veterinary treatment could cost as little as $200 for a mild case that just needs a quick enema. For severe cases with underlying problems, you could be looking at $800 to $1500 or more.
5 Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Constipation
Here comes some good news: you can improve your cat’s bowel regularity without drugs or invasive treatments. Next, I’m going to outline five lifestyle optimizations you can start on today.
1. Decrease Stress
I know, everyone is always telling you to decrease stress not only for yourself but also for your pets. You might ask, “What does that fuzzball have to be stressed about? He doesn’t have to go to work and he sleeps like 20 hours a day!”
Well, boredom is a form of stress for cats. Like prisoners in a jail cell, they have nothing to stimulate their natural instincts, nothing to hunt, no new places to explore.
Cats who live their entire lives indoors don’t get much stimulation, so you need to go out of your way to change that. Here are some suggestions:
- Make or buy a window seat or better yet, an outdoor cat enclosure/catio. Here are a couple of my favorites:
- Gradually accustom your kitty to going outside with a safety harness (Amazon link) and leash
- Make a new inexpensive/homemade toy at least once a month
- Build climbing structures and forts (cardboard boxes work great)
- Provide different scratching surfaces and change them regularly
- Provide one more litter box than the number of cats (2 cats need 3 boxes) and keep them clean!
- Split meals into multiple small dishes and place them around your house to be found
- Try simulating hunting with interactive food toys. Try these little mice from Amazon.com filled with treats or dry kibble:
2. Treat Obesity
Obesity is rampant among indoor cats. The reasons are multifactorial, but eating dry food and not moving much contribute to the problem.
Ask your vet what your cat should weigh–just so you know, the healthy weight of an average cat is about 10 pounds. Animals with a larger or smaller frame will have different healthy weights.
How can you get your kitty to lose weight? Well, there’s not just one answer. Just like humans, some cats do better on a low-carb diet while others achieve optimum body condition by eating high-fiber weight-loss food.
Ask your vet for a recommendation or choose a weight loss diet and try it for a couple of months to gauge the response.
3. Increase Exercise
Movement is natural for cats. Laying around most of the day is not. More exercise will improve your cat’s hormone profile as well as his mental state. Of course, it can help with weight loss but the main thing to concentrate on here is your cat’s diet.
You can get your kitty more exercise by taking him for walks or letting him have time outside in a safe enclosure, as I mentioned earlier.
Interactive toys are great for days when you can’t get outside. But keep in mind you will need to join in and encourage your kitty to play more. Placing his food in several small dishes around the house will also help get him moving more.
4. Increase Water Intake
I’ve covered this already, but I want to mention it again because it’s extremely important. Work on getting your buddy to enjoy eating wet diets. Dr. Pierson has some great tips on how to switch stubborn cats to canned food.
Adding broth to dry food is a decent option, too. Why not try a cat water fountain while you’re at it?
5. Food Trials
Aside from trying a weight loss diet, you should also consider trying some different food formulations to see if they agree with your cat’s digestive tract better than her current ration. Cats with more severe constipation often have some improvement with a hypoallergenic or intestinal prescription food like Hill’s z/d® food or Royal Canin Gastrointestinal®. (Links go to Amazon.com)
Some cats with mild to moderate symptoms do best with a higher fiber diet found in “Indoor Cat” formulas or a prescription version like Purina Pro Plan OM feline® (Amazon link but available elsewhere by prescription).
Others do well with homemade food and some thrive on raw food (make sure you buy a safe one, though–check out Nature’s Variety Instinct® frozen raw food).
Change food gradually over a period of at least a week. If you notice worsening bowel symptoms, go more slowly. Once you’ve completely transitioned to the new food, feed it for at least a couple of months before you draw any conclusions about whether or not it helps.
Best Food for Constipated Cats
I wrote about the best food for your cat’s constipation in another article since it’s such a broad topic. In general, a high moisture diet, i.e. canned or wet food is recommended for all cats.
Depending on the details of your pet’s situation, high fiber or low fiber food may work better. There is really no way of knowing except by trying various foods for at least a couple of months.
Probiotics are generally safe and, in my opinion, worth a try for cats with sluggish bowels. While we don’t have a lot of clinical research to support the use of probiotics in cats, a 2015 study found that cats given a high-potency probiotic had an improvement in symptoms as well as cellular markers of inflammation (3).
Learn How to Find a Good Probiotic for Pets
Check out my article on probiotics (the article focuses on the dog but the same recommendations apply to cats). Proviable DC® is my top pick for cats, but Fortiflora® is also good because it’s flavored and cats love it! (Links go to Amazon.com)
What If Your Cat Is Not Pooping But Is Acting Normal?
If your kitty hasn’t pooped in 24 hours but is acting normal otherwise, i.e. still eating and drinking and moving around normally, you can try some home remedies.
The first thing to try is feeding wet food if you usually feed mostly or all dry food. You can add some broth, tuna water or pumpkin if she will take it.
Miralax® is pretty safe to try at home. I advise my clients to give ⅛-¼ teaspoon of the powder mixed with moist food or broth two to three times a day until a bowel movement occurs.
It’s very important to consider what you can do to prevent the problem from happening again. Read the article and implement some of my suggestions.
If your cat still hasn’t pooped after 48 hours, you need to get her to the animal clinic!
The last topic I want to touch on is the constipated kitten. They get sluggish bowels for somewhat different reasons than adults.
GI parasites like roundworms and hookworms can really mess up a kitten’s bathroom habits. We often see diarrhea, but constipation can also occur. Other parasites like giardia and coccidia may be the cause, too. Take a fecal sample to the veterinarian to find out which medication will work best for your kitten.
Decreased defecation in bottle-fed orphan kittens seems to happen when the formula is too rich. I advise foster kitten raisers to add 25-50% more water for a couple of feedings to see if that helps.
A less common issue is congenital abnormalities. I’ve seen kittens that actually had no anal opening, but others might have nerve problems that prevent normal pooping. You’ll need your veterinarian’s help to identify and treat this sort of problem.
I’ve seen some articles and videos on the internet that advise aggressive massage to get a kitten to poop. I don’t recommend you try this at home. You’d be surprised how easy it is to cause serious trauma to a tiny kitten’s rear end! Get your veterinarian to help you because there’s usually more of an issue than just needing a massage.
- Benjamin, S. E., & Drobatz, K. J. (2020). Retrospective evaluation of risk factors and treatment outcome predictors in cats presenting to the emergency room for constipation. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 22(2), 153-160.
- Harris, J. E., & Dhupa, S. (2008). Lumbosacral intervertebral disk disease in six cats. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 44(3), 109-115.
- Rossi, G., Jergens, A., Cerquetella, M., Berardi, S., Pengo, G., & Suchodolski, J.. THE EFFECT OF THE PROBIOTIC SIVOYTM ON CLINICAL AND HISTOPATHOLOGICAL PARAMETERS IN CATS WITH CHRONIC IDIOPATHIC CONSTIPATION AND MEGACOLON. In American College of Veterinary Internal medicine (ACVIM) Forum 2015: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, 3-6 June 2015. Lakewood, CO: American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. Retrieved February 04, 2021.
- Stern, L. A. (2015). Hypertonic phosphate enema intoxication in dogs and cats. Veterinary Medicine, 110(7), 176-180.
Last update on 2021-07-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API