By Dr. Becker
Although most pet owners encounter bouts of diarrhea more often than the opposite problem, dogs and cats do occasionally get constipated.
If solid waste stays in your pet’s colon too long, all the moisture in it will be absorbed and stools will become dry, hard, and difficult to pass. Left untreated, your pet’s large intestine can actually stretch to the point where it can no longer do its job effectively. This is a chronic condition known as megacolon, and it’s more common in cats than dogs.
Your goal should always be to prevent your pet from developing chronic, longstanding bowel issues.
Causes of Constipation
In most cases, the cause for a pet’s constipation is simply insufficient water consumption or lack of dietary fiber, but sometimes the problem is more serious.
When the condition is more complicated, it typically involves either an obstruction inside the colon or a problem in the pelvic cavity -- for example a fractured pelvis or a tumor growing in the abdomen -- that impinges on the function of the bowel.
If your dog swallows a foreign object or even a big chunk of bone, it can lodge in his bowel and cause an obstruction that prevents passage of stool. If your dog is having trouble pooping and he’s been known to eat things he shouldn’t, my advice is to contact your vet if the situation doesn’t resolve in a day or two.
If you know for a fact your pet has ingested something large that could create an obstruction, don’t delay as this can develop quickly into a very serious, even fatal, problem.
Intact males, especially older dogs, can develop enlarged prostates that compress the bowel, creating very thin stools or even an obstruction. This problem can usually be resolved by having your pet neutered.
Hernias in your dog’s rectum are another obstruction that can cause constipation. The hernia bulges into the rectum, closing off passage of stool. Hernias usually require surgery to repair.
Constipation can also be the result of a neuromuscular problem or a disease like hypothyroidism or hypercalcemia.
Some dogs have insufficient muscle tone or neuromuscular disorders that impede their body’s ability to efficiently move waste through the colon. Stool that stays too long in the bowel loses moisture and hardens, making it even more difficult to pass. This can become a vicious cycle, because the more difficult or painful it is to go, the more likely the dog is to develop a habit of avoiding elimination.
Other causes of constipation can include infected anal glands, or a hip or pelvic injury that makes defecation painful, the effects of surgery, certain medications, iron supplements, and stress.
How to Tell If Your Pet Is Constipated
Your pet is constipated when he either has difficulty pooping (and feces produced are dry and hard) or isn’t pooping at all. It’s really important to keep an eye on your pet’s elimination habits. The quantity, color, texture, smell, and the presence of mucus or blood are all indicators of your pet’s general well being. Often, what leaves (or doesn’t leave) your pet’s body is the first sign of a health crisis, so you should regularly monitor your dog’s potty area or your cat’s litter box (or your yard if your kitty goes outside).
Constipated dogs tend to look like they’re trying to go or need to go, but don’t. If after a few minutes of hunching and straining your dog doesn’t go or produces poop that is small, hard and dry, you can safely assume she’s constipated.
Sometimes constipated dogs appear bloated and painful, especially when trying unsuccessfully to defecate. The stool a constipated dog does manage to pass is often darker than normal and may contain mucus, blood or strange debris.
Cats should poop daily, and stools should be brown, formed, and soft enough that litter sticks to them. If your kitty isn’t going daily or her stools are so hard and dry that litter doesn’t stick to them, she could be constipated.
Not every constipated cat yowls while in the litter box or shows other overt signs of constipation. Some kitties suffer their entire lives and their owners don’t realize it because they aren’t aware of the more subtle signs of chronic constipation.
If the constipation is left untreated, your pet may begin to vomit intermittently, lose her appetite, and start dropping weight. She may seem lethargic. Hopefully, the problem won’t progress to this point before you realize you need to take action.
How to Keep Your Pet Well Hydrated
One of the most frequent causes of constipation in pets is dehydration.
If you suspect your dog is constipated or you’ve noticed dry, hard stools when he’s able to go, it’s important to monitor his water intake. You can use this tool to calculate your dog’s daily water requirement.
If your dog is very active he needs more water, and in hot weather, every dog’s requirements increase. Make sure your pet has constant access to clean, fresh water.
Depending on what you feed your dog – especially if you feed raw or cooked food prepared at home, or a canned commercial formula -- he should be getting some of the moisture his body needs from his meals. If you feed dry kibble exclusively (which I don’t recommend), your dog will need to get most of her water from her water bowl.
Cats are designed to get most of their daily water requirement from their diet. Felines don’t have a strong thirst drive like most animals, so if your kitty’s diet is moisture deficient, it’s very likely he cannot or will not make up the difference drinking from a water bowl. This can result not only in constipation, but chronic, low-grade dehydration throughout your cat’s life.
If you’re feeding your cat kibble, I recommend a slow transition to canned food. It may take weeks or even months to get your cat eating a more species-appropriate diet with plenty of moisture content, but it’s well worth the effort. You can also add water to your cat’s food to help lubricate the colon. And you might consider purchasing a pet water fountain to replace kitty’s bowl of still water. Many cats will drink more from a moving water source.
More Help for Pets Who Can’t Poop
Exercise. Animals need physical activity to keep moving, including moving stool through the colon. Regular physical activity can help prevent or remedy constipation.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics. Both these supplements will help with maldigestion, which is often the cause of both occasional constipation and diarrhea.
Additional dietary fiber. In the wild, the fur on prey provides fiber in a dog’s or cat’s diet. Needless to say, domesticated pets don’t get a lot of fur in their meals! Good sources of fiber for your four-legged companion include:
- Psyllium husk powder: 1/2 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food.
- Ground dark green leafy veggies: 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily with food
- Coconut oil: ½ teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily
- Canned 100 percent pumpkin: 1 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food
- Organic apple cider vinegar (ACV), raw and unfiltered: 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight added to food 1-2 times daily.
- Aloe juice (not the topical gel): 1/4 teaspoon per 10 pounds of body weight 1-2 times daily on food.
The above recommendations are for dogs or cats experiencing a minor, transient bout of constipation. If your pet’s condition is ongoing or chronic, or if you aren’t sure of the cause, your best option is to call your vet for guidance.