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Just like dogs, cats — especially young, curious cats — sometimes eat things that can get stuck in their intestinal system. If this happens, a painful and potentially life-threatening condition called cat intestinal blockage, or cat bowel obstruction, can occur. Here's a closer look at why this condition occurs, how it is diagnosed and treated and how you can prevent it from happening to your cat.
Common Reasons For Cat Intestinal Blockages
If your cat has an intestinal blockage it's most likely because they ate something they shouldn't have. Most things pass through the digestive tract just fine, but sometimes an object is too big to get through the intestines. When this happens, it's called foreign body obstruction. Another common cause of cat bowel obstruction is when a cat swallows string, thread or tinsel. When this happens it is called a linear foreign body obstruction. In either case, your pet may require surgical care to remove the material.
What Happens When It Occurs?
When a cat swallows, food goes first to the stomach then through the small intestines, the large intestine, the colon and finally out the anus as feces.
But when the intestines are blocked, nothing can get through. If the cat continues to eat and drink, then fluid and food will build up behind the obstruction, causing swelling, inflammation and distention of the intestines. If this occurs in the part of the intestine closer to the stomach, it can cause vomiting. If it happens closer to the tail, it can cause diarrhea. If the intestines are completely blocked, the condition is considered life threatening unless treated.
Signs & Symptoms of Cat Intestinal Blockages
Signs of a possible intestinal blockage may include:
- Vomiting, either food or liquid
- Diarrhea, which can be bloody
- Pain in the belly
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of energy
- Straining in the litter box to defecate
- Smaller amounts of feces in comparison to normal
- Increased aggression
- Pawing at the face (occurs when string is swallowed and has wrapped around the base of the tongue)
If you notice any of these signs, call your veterinarian immediately.
Diagnosing Cat Intestinal Blockages
Your veterinarian will use a combination of factors to diagnose your cat. They will rely on any history you have of your cat's behavioral changes and any sick behaviors you notice (hiding, loss of energy, vomiting, etc.). The veterinarian will also conduct a complete physical exam and may recommend a combination of laboratory blood, urine testing and X-ray or abdominal ultrasound to check for any indications of obstruction.
Partially blocked intestines may be treated without surgery. In these cases your cat will be hospitalized, given fluids and pain medications and checked in on to see if the blockage passes on its own. If the blockage does not pass, then surgical removal of the foreign body will be required.
After surgery, you will likely be discharged with medication. Medication can include pain medication, anti-nausea medication and possibly antibiotics. Give all medications as prescribed and follow all post-surgical instructions completely. Your cat will likely have to wear an Elizabethan collar to prevent them from opening their stitches back up. Your cat will need to rest following surgery, and you may need to restrict your cat's activity.
It is also very important to feed your cat bland, easily digestible food that won't overtax the digestive system. Your vet will most likely recommend therapeutic food to help support the digestive system while it heals.
If you have a naturally curious and playful cat that likes to explore, or if your cat has a history of eating things that could block up the intestinal tract, try "cat proofing" your house. Put items that your cat might eat in a secured drawer or cabinet, especially rubber bands, paper, wool, hair ties or scrunchies — cats seem to have a particular affinity for hair accessories. Supervise your cat playing with small toys and then put them away when you aren't able to observe. If your cat likes to eat plants, you may need to prevent access to houseplants as well.
With a little knowledge and planning, you can help prevent your cat from ingesting things they shouldn't. And if it happens, now you know what to look for and when to seek help. If you are ever in doubt, consult with your local veterinarian who is ready and willing to help.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well-known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications, such as chewy.com, petMD, Vetstreet, Hill's Education Blog, and DVM360 print and online publications, Healthy Pet Magazine, and the Bark. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space for 5 years,and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. In addition to being a speaker, author, veterinarian, and co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity', she co-owns Elevated Eateries Restaurant group in Greeley with her husband of 21 years, and together they are raising 3 slightly feral mini-humans. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado, diving with sharks in the Caribbean, or training kenpo karate in her local dojo. Go big...or go home.