Cat Constipation: Symptoms and Causes

Updated May 6, 2024
little scat sitting in blue litter box unable to go to bathroom due to cat constipation.

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In This Article

Symptoms

Constipation is defined as infrequent or difficult defecation. This may mean hard stool; large, uncomfortable pellets; or no production of poop at all.

Cat constipation is a short-term problem. If your cat continues to be constipated, it can become obstipation (painful defecation) or even megacolon, which is the advanced stage of chronic cat constipation that is often non-responsive to medical management.

If your cat is straining when in their litter box, this could be a sign of a medical emergency—contact your vet immediately. The underlying cause could possibly be serious or deadly if untreated.

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Cat Constipation Symptoms

Symptoms that your cat is constipated may include:

  • Little to no fecal production while attempting to poop. This is otherwise known as straining and is often a sign of pain or discomfort.

  • Frequent visits to the litter box. With constipation, cats will often have a sense of urgency to try and have a bowel movement often hence they will frequent the litter box more than usual.

  • Vomiting. Vomiting can occur from a sense of feeling full due to extra feces present in the digestive tract. It can also be caused by nausea from upset stomach or abdominal pain.

  • Decreased appetite. Constipation is often uncomfortable and can cause nausea, thus cats will choose not to eat to help relieve themselves or to tell you they are not feeling well.

  • Abdominal pain. Abdominal pain is caused by the excessive amount of stool, gas, and distension caused by constipation. Constipation can also cause an intestinal blockage which is often painful.

  • Decreased energy. Abdominal pain and gas causing pain can also contribute to less activity.

  • Decreased interest in interacting with family. This is a common general symptom that occurs when a cat is not feeling well. Cats often isolate themselves to try and resolve their issue or as a way of telling you they do not feel well.

What Causes Constipation in Cats?

Cats can become constipated for many reasons, from stressful situations to health issues. You should always see the vet within 24 hours to rule out health-related causes or underlying diseases.

Litter Box Issues

Sometimes cat constipation starts with a litter box issue: maybe the box isn’t cleaned frequently enough or isn’t easy to access or there is a new type of cat litter in the box. Or if the litter box is associated with pain while attempting to poop such as cats with arthritis, or with something that’s scary to a cat, like the washing machine buzzer going off.

Your cat might choose to hold their stool instead of passing it in a normal amount of time due to the scary noise of where the litter box is placed. In these cases, your cat not wanting to go can quickly become not being able to go—thus constipation occurs.

To help your constipated cat, examine your litter box and its surroundings, and consider:

  • Moving it to a quiet location with no noises or activity that would be scary to your cat

  • Moving it away from your cat’s food, water, and bed

  • Cleaning it more often to reduce smells

  • Using the same kind of litter (brand, odor, and clumping ability) exclusively

  • Switching to a low-sided litter box that is easier to access

Not Drinking Enough

Cat constipation could also be caused by not drinking enough water. Your cat’s reluctance to drink might be related to an underlying health concern such as mobility issues, mouth pain, or digestive discomfort. Take them to the vet to rule out any of these issues.

Your cat might also be reacting to an issue with their water dish, such as stagnant or dirty water, or even the type of bowl. Always rule out medical issues first, especially when it comes to dehydration. Then you can also think about:

  • Using a cat water fountain with flowing water that mimics a stream or river
  • Trying water bowls made out of other materials, like glass, ceramic, or metal
  • Cleaning the water bowl more often
  • Adding ice cubes or small toys into the bowl can promote more water drinking
  • Hydracare™ is a supplement that is designed to increase a cat’s water intake

Underlying Disease

Many diseases, both acute (short-term) and chronic, can lead to cat constipation. These include kidney disease, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism. All cases of straining in the litter box should be evaluated by a veterinarian, because each of these illnesses can become serious or even deadly if left untreated.

Obstruction

A toy or other nonfood item can obstruct the intestines, preventing the passage of poop. This is considered an emergency. If your cat is constipated and shows any symptoms of obstruction, take them to the vet immediately. Symptoms of an obstruction may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Refusing to eat
  • Swollen belly
  • Refusing to lie down
  • Fever or low body temperature

The inability to urinate or straining to urinate is also an emergency for your cat; take them to see a vet as quickly as possible to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Not Enough Exercise

Inactivity can also lead to cat constipation. You should aim for at least 10-15 minutes of activity interactive play with your cat per day, or more if you have a younger cat or kitten. Some ways to incorporate play for cats can include:

How Veternarians Diagnose Constipation in Cats

First, your veterinarian will want a history of your cat. You’ll need to describe the symptoms, when they started, and other factors that may be related to your cat’s constipation.

Providing a full history is very important because straining in the litter box can also be a symptom of lower urinary issues and diarrhea.

After getting your cat’s history, your veterinarian will perform a physical exam. In constipated cats, a vet can often feel the hard stool, but not always.

Next, your veterinarian will recommend X-rays to evaluate the extent of constipation to determine the best initial treatment for your cat. Bloodwork is often required to assess underlying diseases that may predispose your cat to constipation.

Treatment for Cat Constipation

Treatment for constipated cats depends on the cause and severity. Constipation that is left untreated can lead to megacolon, a form of constipation that is not responsive to medical treatment and can be fatal.

The first step in treatment is to remove the obstructing feces, which sometimes requires administration of fluids or an enema at the clinic. Never give an enema to your cat at home, as human enemas are not safe for cats.

If the constipation is moderate or severe, your cat will need to be sedated for the enema or deobstipation (manual removal of feces).

The next step is to determine the underlying cause of your cat’s constipation and address it. You may need to make changes in your cat’s environment, like moving the litter boxes, cleaning the water bowl or litter boxes more often, or trying a cat water fountain or a different type of water bowl.

The vet may also recommend switching your cat to low- or high-fiber food and adding medication specifically for constipation.

But more often, treating any underlying disease, such as kidney disease or arthritis, is the most important treatment to prevent a recurrence.

Recovery and Management of Cat Constipation

Once the hard stool is removed, recovery is usually rapid. Unfortunately, if you don’t deal with the original cause, whether it’s treating a health issue or making lifestyle changes, then your cat is likely to become constipated again.

Follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Often the food changes or medications will need to be continued for life. Just because your cat is feeling better doesn’t mean you can stop treatment.

Pro Tip: Hang a calendar on the wall near the litter box to keep track of your cat’s poop schedule. This will help you be proactive at the first sign of a problem.

FAQs:

How can you tell if a cat is constipated?

A common sign that your cat is constipated is when they are producing little to no stool in a 24 hour period as well as straining. Straining is when they posture to defecate and little to no stool comes out.

Constipation can also cause bleeding from the rectum, small/firm fecal balls produced, or other general signs of illness such as vomiting, diarrhea, or change in appetite.  

Should I be worried if my cat is constipated and vomiting?

When a cat has started vomiting due to constipation, this is a serious sign that they need medical attention. Vomiting is a sign of an intestinal obstruction likely caused by the impacted stool. If you notice these signs, contact an emergency vet immediately.

How often should a cat poop?

Most cats poop at least once a day. Your cat should be having a normal bowel movement every 12-24 hours to ensure that their digestive system is working properly.


Hanie Elfenbein, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Hanie Elfenbein, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Elfenbein graduated from the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2016. She currently practices in...


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