Question: Our 12-year-old fat male cat, Garfield, has been having repeated bouts of constipation as he is getting older. He has been admitted a couple of times and been given enemas. Can you recommend any natural remedies and preventative measures?
T.W., via email
Answer: Constipation—difficult, incomplete or infrequent defecation accompanied by the passage of hard or dry stools—is not as common as diarrhea in pets, but it's certainly not rare, occurring occasionally in dogs as well as in older cats such as Garfield. Although it appears to be a simple issue, constipation can also be a symptom of larger health problems, so it's important to take it seriously.
In dogs, the main dietary cause of constipation is eating cooked bones; in cats, it's eating hair, furballs or other foreign materials. Constipation can also result from a lack of exercise, if your pet cannot move for some reason or is just lazy.
Dirty litter boxes can make cats constipated, and dogs tend to become constipated when they're hospitalized because of the unfamiliar surroundings.
Debility or general muscle weakness, dehydration and conditions that impair the function of smooth muscles such as those in the gut can also cause constipation. Obesity can predispose animals to constipation, too. Since you describe Garfield as "fat," helping him get his weight down might help prevent attacks in the future.
In dogs, constipation can also result from prostate disease, pelvic fractures, spinal paralysis, megacolon (an abnormally enlarged large intestine), cancer and foreign bodies.
If your pet has a painful condition near its anus (like an anal gland abscess, rectal prolapse, perianal hernia, or a wound near the anus), they will avoid bowel movements due to the pain.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Constipation is usually obvious to dog owners if their pets typically 'go' while out on a walk, but it can be missed in cats that prefer the great outdoors to a litter box. Constipated pets may strain to pass feces; pass tiny, pebble-like or hard and dry feces; or not pass feces at all.
Passing blood or mucus may also be a symptom. Some pets may vomit or stop eating if the constipation is prolonged. Constipated cats may yowl or scream.
A rectal and perianal exam by your vet is necessary for a diagnosis. Hard feces are usually found sitting in the colon.
Sometimes x-rays or ultrasound may be needed if the symptoms could be related to another condition like cancer, prostate issues or foreign bodies in the gut. Barium enemas may be necessary to identify an obstruction in the intestines. Cystitis (urinary tract infection) should also be ruled out if the pet is only observed straining, as difficulty passing urine can cause this behavior, as well.
Blood tests may be required if your vet suspects dehydration, kidney disease or an underactive thyroid.
Treatment depends on what's causing the constipation. In mild cases, a laxative like lactulose or liquid paraffin may be recommended, but if your pet is dehydrated, they'll need to stay at the clinic for aggressive fluid therapy, followed by an enema (under sedation) in which your vet can manually remove the feces.
If the exam turns up another cause for the constipation, your vet may need to treat that first, either with drugs or surgery.
If your vet has ruled out potentially serious conditions, there are many things you can do at home—simple lifestyle changes and a number of natural remedies—that can help Garfield get things moving again.
There are several dietary approaches to tackling constipation:
Improve hydration. Fussy pets, especially cats, can be fed chicken broth alone or with added vegetables. Feeding roasted vegetables—like squash, sweet potatoes and zucchini—plus bananas, fresh fig and grated apple can help ease and prevent constipation.
Increase fiber. Fiber increases the absorption of water in the intestine—the colon functions better when stools are moist. Fiber-rich psyllium husks, oat bran and flaxseed can be added to your pet's food or baked into biscuits (see recipe, right). Ready-made products like Profivex powder and Protexin Profiber that are rich in fiber, as well as pre- and probiotics for digestion support, can also be added to your pet's meal.
Suggested dosage: Usually the aim is to give at least ½ tsp of fiber per meal for pets under 15 lbs (7 kg), 2 tsp for pets 15-50 lbs (7-23 kg) and 1 Tbsp for pets over 50 lbs (23 kg)
Add oil. Offer cats catnip-infused sunflower or olive oil, and give dogs cold-pressed flaxseed oil to lubricate the feces in the digestive tract, aiding its transit through the gut.
Suggested dosage: ½ to 1 tsp of oil per day
Slippery elm is a healing herb that soothes the gut when your pet has been straining for prolonged intervals. Add 20 drops of slippery elm tincture to 1 oz of spring water and feed one dropperful to your cat three or four times a day.
This is the best way to prevent obesity and constipation, especially in dogs. With cats, playing with them or walking on a leash is an option. A minimum of 20 minutes of exercise per day is recommended.
Massaging acupoint ST36, which is located on the outside of the knee on the hind limbs, for 30 seconds, two to three times a day can help, as this is a master point for the digestive tract. See my book, You Can Heal Your Pet, for detailed instructions on how to give acupressure to your pet.
Lavender essential oil diluted 50:50 with either peanut or olive oil and applied to the back of the neck or ear tips can ease the discomfort of constipation.
According to Dr Francis Hunter, author of Everyday Homeopathy for Animals, the remedy varies depending on the type of constipation:
• For constipation with unproductive straining, dose with Aloe 6c four times daily until recovery.
• For hard pebble-like stools with blood, use Alumina 30c, dosing three times a day for three days.
• For a general remedy to correct energetic imbalances that contribute to constipation, give Nux Vomica 6c three to four times daily at first, then taper down until the condition settles.
Bach flower remedies
Add a dropperful of Rescue Remedy to your pet's water once a day until constipation is relieved. It helps calm and relax your pet.
Fur, if ingested, can clog feces or form masses of hair called trichobezoars that cause constipation. This can be prevented by regular grooming and brushing. Cats prone to constipation can get a 'lion cut,' with all their hair shaved except the mane and tail.
Healthy high-fiber biscuits
In addition to its high fiber content, flaxseed (also called linseed) is an exceptional plant source of omega-3, -6 and -9 fatty acids for improved energy and healthy circulation, skin and coat. This flaxseed biscuit recipe is adapted from my book, You Can Heal Your Pet.
Flaxseed canine/feline biscuits
¾ cup (130 g) ground flaxseed meal
¾ cup (100 g) plain or self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp light olive oil
2 Tbsp dried eggshells (optional)
1) Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8 × 11-inch (20 × 29-cm) baking tray.
2) Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl until the mixture forms a soft dough.
3) Spread the dough evenly over the baking tray, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tray. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4) Store in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
Variation: add a handful of finely chopped herbs like sage, thyme and parsley, which can help with digestive problems.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com