Constipation – or is it?

Constipation. Not pooping. Or not pooping easily. Or enough.

This topic seems to really stress out pet owners! And there seems to be a lot of confusion and misdirection. For some reason, it tends to be a middle-of-the-night phone message: “my dog/cat hasn’t pooped in __ days. We have to do something!!!”
Not so fast. Take a breath.
Constipation is not really all that common. Often there is another issue at play.
Here’s some things to consider before hitting the panic button.
Or doing a google search.
1 – Has your pet undergone sedation or anesthesia recently?
These types of medications slow down the digestive tract, and it can be normal to not defecate for 2-3 days.
2 – Is your pet on cough suppressants? Certain pain medications?
You guessed it! Medication in the opiate family (butorphanol, buprenex, torbutrol, tussigon, and sometimes even tramadol) can slow down the movement of things through the intestinal tract. If your pet is on these medications temporarily, once they stop, things return back to normal. If your pet is on these medications chronically, there are adjustments we can make to help things more move smoothly.
3 – Is your pet eating?
This seems like common sense – you have to have input to produce output. Still, this is lost on so many people. If your pet is not eating, then there is obviously a much bigger issue! Similarly, if your pet went a couple days without eating (for whatever reason) and begins eating again, it takes time (days) for that digestive tract to get back in the swing of things! Feces do not spontaneously form!
4 – Are you just not finding the poop?
Just because it isn’t in the litterbox doesn’t mean it isn’t being produced! Check around the house, you might find a not-so-fun surprise. Also, some dogs will eat feces (yes, your little angel!) so if you aren’t finding stool in the yard, they may be ……tampering with evidence.
5 – Has your pet had diarrhea recently?
Think about how diarrhea cleans everything out. It takes time for enough “material” to build up to produce an excess. It can take a couple days before you see stool formation.
6 – Your pet is straining – he or she MUST be constipated, right?
Nope. In cats, the big worry is he might be straining to urinate, and is unsuccessful. You see your cat posturing in the litterbox, nothing comes out, and many people think constipation. I can’t tell you how many of these cats have a life-threatening urinary obstruction! So check the litterbox. If there is urine, then that is eliminated as a possibility. If your cat is spending hours in a dry litterbox, that’s an emergency clinic trip!
Straining often is not associated with constipation, believe it or not. The most common cause of straining is actually colitis, or inflammation of the large intestine. This is more common with dogs – whipworms are the first cause we think of, but any gastrointestinal upset can cause this. When your dog is straining, and only a little bit of mucous (with or without blood) is produced – that’s most likely large intestinal upset. We don’t need to treat for constipation – we have a different problem! The large intestinal inflammation is technically considered a type of diarrhea!

So those are the false alarms. When do you really worry?
1 – Your pet is producing feces that are tiny little balls of concrete, and it is with difficulty.
Maybe we need to tweak the diet, or add a supplement. There are a small percentage of pets whose colonic function is not 100%, and often we manage them with special diets, various types of fiber, etc. These are the minority though!
One thing that no one thinks about is dehydration, but that can be a big contributor to constipation. If a dog or cat is dried up (from vomiting, chronic kidney disease, what have you) then there’s less fluid to go into the feces. Dry, hard feces are difficult to pass. We may need to address the dehydration (and what’s causing it) moreso than constipation, which may be a symptom of a larger problem.
2 – Your cat is not eating and/or vomiting.
There is a syndrome some cats develop called megacolon. Their colon is large, flabby, and distended, making it difficult to pass feces. These cats often do not strain to defecate, but instead get so backed up they actually vomit!
3 – Your pet is lethargic, not himself.
Constipation is rarely a disease, and more often a symptom. Your pet may have another condition causing dehydration or otherwise slow intestinal movement that we have not diagnosed yet. Have they not eaten? Again, that whole input-output thing.

Bottom line – before you go throwing metamucil or canned pumpkin at your pet (two very common internet “cures”) think it through. With some disorders, this abrupt increase in fiber can do more harm than good! Your pet may not be constipated, and if so, there may be larger factors at play!
If your pet is truly having trouble passing feces, one treatment I like that cannot hurt anyone, regardless of disease, is laxatone, or other brands of “hairball gel.” Yes it’s labeled as a treatment for cat hairballs, but I use it in both dogs and cats. It comes in a tube like toothpaste, and is basically flavored mineral oil. It won’t soften the stool, or affect the transit of material through the colon. It simply lubricates the colon so feces can sllliiiide through a little easier.

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