In pets constipation is defined as infrequent and difficult defecation of hard feces. Constipated pets often strain to pass stool and act very uncomfortable. Constipation usually results from food moving too slowly through the digestive system. As a result of the slow passage, the colon absorbs too much water from the stool, resulting in feces that are dry and hard. If constipation has been long-standing it may result in obstipation, a condition where feces are so dry and impacted they are unable to pass. A further complication is megacolon; a permanently dilated and weakened colon that becomes severely impacted with feces and often requires aggressive medical or even surgical management to control. While constipation can affect both dogs and cats, it is much more common in older cats.
Common causes of constipation:
- Dehydration— dehydration causes the colon to absorb more water from the stool and pets that become dehydrated may suffer from mild to severe constipation. Aging pets frequently experience mild dehydration and can benefit from supplemental water (see remedies below).
- Excessive ingestion of hair—some animals excessively groom themselves which can clog their digestive system with hair. Keeping hair clipped and routine brushing can help cut down on hair ingestion.
- Foreign body ingestion—some pets eat unusual substances such as gravel, stones, dirt and plants. Stools produced can be sharp or painful to pass, resulting in straining and constipation.
- Medications—certain prescription medications may cause constipation. If your pet becomes constipated, ask your veterinarian about any medications your pet is taking.
- Kidney disease or Diabetes—pets with Kidney disease or Diabetes lose excessive amounts of water in their urine (even though they drink a lot) and live in a perpetual state of mild dehydration and are at risk for chronic constipation. They may also have electrolyte imbalances that lead to poor colon function.
- Electrolyte imbalance—there are many electrolytes that are necessary for normal digestive system function. For example, low levels of potassium or magnesium may lead to severe constipation.
- Intestinal disease—inflammation may cause the intestine to malfunction and not move food properly. A cancerous mass or polyp may act as an obstruction to the passage of stool.
- Orthopedic/neurologic problems—arthritis, incorrectly healed pelvic or back fractures, disc problems or anything that may cause pain will often prevent pets from posturing normally to defecate and result in constipation.
- Perianal hernias—this is a rip in the muscle around the anus that may allow the colon and feces to become trapped inside. A hernia may be present if there is a swelling under the tail. Hernias can cause constipation or be a result of long-term straining to defecate.
If you suspect constipation in your pet, see your veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying problem that should be addressed. Although many over-the-counter constipation remedies are available for humans, they may be toxic to pets. For example, mineral oil can easily be inhaled into the lungs causing inflammation and possibly pneumonia. Certain enemas can cause life-threatening electrolyte imbalances in pets. While your pet may require one (or more) enemas to alleviate their constipation, these should only be given by your veterinarian. It is best to seek veterinary advice to treat constipation and then begin a program of prevention.
You may try one of the following natural remedies if your pet’s constipation is mild or if you are trying to prevent constipation in an older pet.
- Keep up with routine grooming. If you have a pet with long hair, keep it clipped short and brush it daily to prevent excessive hair intake.
- Increase water intake! Most pets, like their human counterparts, do not drink enough water to stay well hydrated. Canned food is an excellent source of supplemental water and for this reason, I recommend adding canned food to your pet’s daily feeding regimen. See http://www.halopets.com/pet-education/pet-articles/transitioning-to-spots-stew.html for advice on including canned food to your pet’s diet. If your pet is already eating canned food and is showing signs of constipation, add more water to make the food brothy. Some pets will drink more if a free-flowing drinking fountain is used. Cats are often attracted to large bowls of water and placing them in various perching locations will often increase water consumption. I lived with a cat with kidney disease for years and used to leave my bathroom sink on so there was a constant drip—he loved it and it helped maintain his hydration.
- Fiber—many pets require a higher level of fiber in their diet to maintain digestive health (especially as they age). Fiber creates a moist bulky stool which stimulates the colon to expel the feces. There are many natural sources of fiber such as pumpkin, fiber-rich root vegetables, bran, psyllium and others that you can try. Halo natural pet foods are filled with fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains to keep the digestive system working well.
- Probiotics—these live bacterial organisms promote intestinal health in many ways. See the article on probiotics here (http://www.halopets.com/pet-education/pet-articles/promoting-intestinal-health.html). All Halo dry pet foods have probiotics and supplements can also be purchased from your veterinarian.
- Multi-vitamin supplement—a vitamin supplement given daily protects against electrolyte or mineral deficiencies that may lead to constipation. I recommend alternating the Daily Greens with the Vitamin Mineral Mix for an excellent balanced supplement!
- Exercise may be just what the doctor ordered! It has been shown that regular exercise reduces the severity and frequency of constipation in many species. Try a laser pointer session or some interactive toys to get your pet off the couch.
- Acupressure/acupuncture—ask your veterinarian for information on this traditional healing practice that involves the application of finger pressure or needles to specific points on the body to facilitate ease of defecation.
More severe or chronic constipation may require stool softeners (e.g. lactulose, etc), prescribed medications (e.g. zantac, cisapride, etc), or surgery to facilitate easier movement of stool through the colon. Your veterinarian can guide you as to the best treatment of constipation for your pet.