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 intestinal blockage, or cat bowel obstruction. 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
  • Hiding
  • 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.

Made for cats, led by science

We believe that science is the best path to giving your pet the best care possible. 

Made for cats, led by science

We believe that science is the best path to giving your pet the best care possible. 

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.

Treatment Options

Partially blocked intestines can sometimes be treated without surgery. In these cases your cat will be hospitalized, given fluids and pain medications, and monitored 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.

Future Prevention

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 Dr. Sarah Wooten

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, Dr. Wooten divides her professional time between small animal practice in Greeley, Colorado, public speaking on associate issues, leadership, and client communication, and writing. She enjoys camping with her family, skiing, SCUBA, and participating in triathlons.