Although it may seem strange to talk about, healthy elimination habits are an important thing to monitor when caring for a feline companion. Of course it may be easy to tell that something needs attention if your cat is having diarrhea or going outside the box, but what if your cat is not passing feces as well as he or she should? Maybe your kitty seems to have very hard or dry stools, even when they are newly passed. Perhaps you are noticing that the frequency of defecation is less, or that your cat's litterbox leavings look like they came from a large dog. Or possibly you've witnessed your cat straining to pass stool without success. Is it simple constipation, or something more? You may need help from one of our veterinarians to find out.
Constipation can be an isolated condition that may be able to be resolved, or it may be a sign of certain underlying conditions. Bloodwork should be done to make sure there are no electrolyte imbalances or other signs of a more serious condition. In some cases, repeated constipation can progress into what is called obstipation, when the colon is unable to be fully emptied. When this happens, the colon can dilate or become stretched as it fills with more stool. Signs that a cat is obstipated can include unusual vocalization, straining to pass stool, lethargy, loss of appetite, or vomiting. Cats in this case with normal blood values and no evidence of physical or neurological defects often have what is called “idiopathic megacolon,” a condition in which the colon loses function for unknown reasons. Of course, the inability to eliminate waste can have very serious consequences without treatment.
When a cat is obstipated (which should be confirmed by x-ray), immediate treatment consists of evacuating the stool from the colon. This may be achieved by one or more applications of a pet-safe enema, possibly along with manual manipulation of the stool. This may require sedation, as the procedure can be uncomfortable. Fluids are given for hydration, either intravenously or subcutaneously (under the skin), depending on the patient's condition. Once the stool has been successfully evacuated and the patient is well hydrated, long term management of the condition becomes the next goal.
Typically, management of megacolon consists of a combination of factors meant to make it easier for the cat to pass stool. These can include a prescription high-fiber diet available from your veterinarian, stool-softening medications such as lactulose, and sometimes medication to help encourage gastrointestinal motility such as cisapride. It is also important to maintain good hydration, possibly by adding canned food to your cat's diet, or by using a fountain-type water bowl which can entice a cat to drink more water.
In rare cases, even with a combination of medical or dietary treatments, the severe megacolon patient may continue to become constipated or obstipated. For these patients, a surgical option is available, called subtotal colectomy. There are risks to this surgery, including long-term soft stool formation, but for patients whose condition is not able to be managed medically, the benefits may outweigh the risk. Our veterinarians will be able to help you determine if surgical intervention is needed for your cat. In many cases, however, medical treatment will keep a cat with megacolon happy and healthy.
If you have any questions, please contact Eagle Animal Hospital at 610-458-8789. We serve Chester Springs, Downingtown, Exton, Glenmoore and the surrounding area.