Constipation in Pets

What To Expect When You Go To The Vet

Brought to you by the FoxNest Veterinary Hospital

Hair Balls
Just Feeling Lousy
Foreign Bodies
Constipation, being gassy, having slow bowel motility and just not feeling well because of fermenting hair or other crud in the bowel is a very common problem and quite frequently bad enough to warrant a trip to the vet.

Constipation comes in all degrees but usually results in feeling sluggish and miserable.

Cats are especially prone to getting constipated.

Okay, here we go.  As with most of my disease and treatment pages, you'll find a discussion describing the problem to include a section about what to expect when you go to the vet. 


A lot of the time when an animal is brought into the clinic with a history of "just not feeling well",  I find that the cat or dog has no obvious symptoms except for a tight, gassy abdomen, a hunched posture (lordosis), and maybe a fever.  The history is usually that the pet is just not feeling well, has a poor appetite, maybe a little nausea, and maybe that the pet hasn't pooped as usual.

That's it.  Everything else seems to be pretty normal.

With cats, the most common cause is a bowel clogged up with hair or possibly the hide of a chipmunk or other small creature.

With dogs, especially young dogs still in the "chewing stage", the cause can be just about anything from plastic garbage bags to corn cobs to underwear to mulch, sticks and rocks.

The number one cause of constipation in dogs is from ....    eating homework !   Yes, we vets are constantly treating dogs sick from eating English and history papers.  Science projects are especially troublesome. (I'm joking)

Sometimes there isn't any actual object plugging up the works, but the colon has simply stopped pumping bowel contents rearward.  Perhaps due to fever, different types of indigestion, or other diseases.  We often find that cats with abscess' and high fevers are also bloated from poor and weak bowel movements.  They probably feel worse from the GI bloat than they do the abscess.

Diagnosis and treatment is USUALLY simple, but not always.  Sometimes the symptoms elude us and sometimes simple treatment is not enough; and every once and a while we need to x-ray and perform surgery to remove an object.


As you know, cats are constant groomers.  Lick Lick Lick

If, due to allergies or fleas or poor diet your cat has skin inflammation, they not only lick more but shed more and ingest great quantities of hair and dead skin.  Most people are familiar with cats upchucking a wad of hair, but what a lot of people don't think about is the wads of hair that aren't upchucked.  Where do they go? 

Well, I understand you're not likely to spend your time thinking about such things, but of course the wad of hair goes on into the intestinal system where if will eventually come out.  But on it's journey through the system it will clog and ferment and make your cat feel terrible.  The fermentation of the intestinal hairball will lead to bloat and slow bowel motility. 

The blood vessels in the bowel will absorb the toxins and chemicals from the fermenting hair and this will cause further discomfort and maybe a fever.  The fever in turn will further slow the intestinal system movements and speed the fermentation.  A nasty situation.

Treatment usually involves medications that reduce the gas, cramps, and fever and lots of laxative and maybe an enema to evacuate the bowel.

At any rate, if your cat is feeling lousy for more than a couple of days, suspect constipation and take it to your vet.  How do you spell relief?

An aside about cats:  cats evolved in desert areas of the world and that perhaps explains why they have a relatively DRY intestinal system.  They also have a short intestinal tract and are carnivores.  Compared to other pets, they usually eat a low fiber diet.  All these are factors for explaining why cats are so prone to constipation.  By the way, another animal prone to constipation are ostriches!  I mention this simply because it's kind of interesting.  I think the cause is usually due to their over ingestion of sand.

On This Page:


Constipated Cats

Hairballs in Cats and Dogs

Foreign Bodies

Just Feeling Lousy

Fever Associated with Intestinal Clogging

What To Expect When You Go To The Vet For Cases Like This.

The "Cotton Ball Remedy"

More Intestinal Topics On Other Pages:

Our Introductory page about intestinal problems in dogs and cats

Parvo Virus

Liver Disease

Food Allergies

Problems with the Esophagus

Colitis: Chronic problems with the lower bowel


Parvo Dysentery

Food Allergies

Intestinal Parasites

There is a complete directory of links at the bottom of the page.

HairBalls and Other
GI Obstructions

One of the most common reasons for bringing in a pet to the vet is because the pet simply doesn't feel well.  It's obvious to the owner that the activity and appetite are way off and the pet looks and acts like it feels terrible. 

There are lots of possible different reasons for this, but one of the more common reasons involves intestinal bloat, inflammation, indigestion, fever, cramps, and gut pain associated with something clogging up the intestines. 

In our feline patients, this is often a build up of hair that passes from the stomach into the intestines .... or possibly the hide and crunched up bones of a chipmunk or other unfortunate prey.  In dogs, especially young dogs, the culprit might be anything from underwear to plastic wrap to sticks and stones, acorns, wood chips, hair, or chew toys.

What's Fever got to do with it?
Our bodies are constantly being bombarded by zillions of germs and parasites a day... every time we eat, kiss, touch, and breathe.  Most of these germs never make it past our healthy skin, our saliva, or our sinus'.  But some germs do make it past our front line defenses and these are attacked by the lymphatic system of ducts, nodes, and an army of white blood cells, immune globulins and other specialized proteins.  It's a microscopic battle and if the battle is a more than a quick skirmish there's going to be some inflammation and often a fever.

At any rate, one of the things that can happen when your body has a fever is that the bowel motility will often slow or shut down.  And if this happens, your pet will suffer from different degrees of bloat.  This type of constipation, where there isn't actually a physical blockage caused by an object, bark, grass, or hair is the most common type of constipation we see.  Luckily, treatment is usually easy and uneventful assuming whatever caused the fever in the first place isn't too serious.

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Hairballs in Dogs
Not much to add here...just that dogs get hair balls too with pretty much the same symptoms.  They get these hairs from licking themselves...especially if they have skin diseases or irritations...and sometimes they get clogged up with hair from eating dead animals etc.  Same as cats.  Same treatment, but bigger enemas!

Foreign Bodies
Animals of all types sometimes eat inappropriate objects ... especially young dogs...that's no surprise.  And every once in a while that object gets stuck in the stomach or intestines.
Sometimes the same treatment we use for hairballs will work (lots of lube down the mouth and enemas up the rear), but sometimes we have to x-ray and perform surgery to remove things like underwear, large bones, corn cobs, plastic bags, stuffed animals, pine cones, golf balls, rocks, and all kinds of interesting stuff.

Just Feeling Lousy
I pretty much said what I have to say about this subject in the introductory section about cats above.  It applies to dogs too.

So just let me reiterate that if your cat or dog is simply not acting well for more than a couple of days, please go to the vet.  Home treatment is usually not enough.

What to Expect When You Go To The Vet
If Your Pet Has Constipation

If you've read most of the above, you already have a good idea of what history and symptoms are involved.

The history usually involves a dog or cat that simply is off their feed, not as energetic, possibly some nausea, and so forth.  Other signs include restlessness, inability to get comfortable, excessive farting, straining to poop, and whining due to discomfort.  They often don't want to be picked up, act crabby or snappish.  Cats often go into hiding. 

Symptoms can be subtle or obvious.  They may include:

Lordosis or hunched posture   
Palpation of a tight or gassy abdomen
Mild respiratory distress

We vets usually pick up on these signs quite easily.  But we are always wary of making the diagnosis of simple constipation.  Why?   For two reasons:

1.  These same symptoms are common to many other, more serious diseases.

2.  Constipation may indeed be a correct but incomplete diagnosis.  Constipation is frequently a sequelae or result of other diseases that may not be obvious.

Because of this, don't be surprised if your vet tells you he or she suspects constipation but wants to look further, run some tests, or at the very least warn you that your pet may be suffering from multiple problems.

So here's what to expect:

A good history and examination.

And then .... Depending on the exam results and the severity of the case, the following will be typical options.  Of course, your vet may do things differently

1.  Inexpensive, symptomatic treatment and discharge with directions to return if not all better in a day or two.
The symptomatic treatment usually including lots of oral petroleum jelly in hopes of evacuating the bowel

2.  Initial plan 2 is the same as # 1 except that we keep the pet in the clinic to perform the messy job of administering oral and rectal lubricants.  This also lets us monitor the pet and move on to a higher level of veterinary care if the patient isn't improving quickly.

3.  Inexpensive, symptomatic care is a fine initial approach for suspected constipation IF the patient is stable, well hydrated, and just feeling a little lousy, but for more serious cases ... or for those cases that don't respond to initial treatment, then it's time to investigate further.


Blood work to rule out things like pancreatitis, anemia, liver disease, internal infections, diabetes and other electrolyte and metabolic problems that might be the underlying cause of the digestive symptoms

Urinalysis to monitor and check for hydration status and kidney function,

Fecal Analysis to check for parasites, mucus, and blood

Radiographs to look for possible objects, obstructions, enlarged organs, diaphragmatic hernias, cancers, and an especially dangerous type of bowel obstruction called an intusseception.

Ultrasound can be used to see things not visible on radiographs


The basics include supportive and medical care as needed to rehydrate, calm, and reduce fevers, cramping, and pain. 

Preventive antibiotics to counter absorption of bacteria getting into the blood stream from the compromised gut wall. 

And some means of evacuating the bowel...usually with laxatives and/or enemas.

Lastly, a little patience.  Typically 1-4 days in the hospital are needed for more serious cases

Some vets like different types of natural or alternative treatments. For example, some vets might recommend feeding a large quantity of pumpkin pie filling which will act as a high fiber laxative.

Some vets may have endoscopes with attachments available and may be able to retrieve foreign objects without surgery.

For more serious cases, exploratory or corrective surgery may be needed.  This is especially true for foreign bodies such as corn cobs, socks, nylon stockings, and plastic wrap which seem to cling to the intestinal wall.  Note that intestinal surgery can be fairly high risk due to potential complications whenever we incise the intestinal wall. Your pet may need expensive and prolonged aftercare until all better.

Your vet will recommend changes in diet and care for underlying problems such as poor hair coats if needed.  For dogs and especially cats that seem to be prone to frequent hairballs or constipation there are several things that help:

The new hairball remedy diets help a little

Prescription diets meant for gi disorders may help a lot

Diets designed to relieve food allergies may help a lot

Periodic treatment with hairball laxatives are often needed

Omega 3 and 6 fatty acid supplementation will often help

Adding fiber to the diet may help

Supplementing with digestive enzymes and/or probiotics often help

Less food and more exercise may be in order

What to do if your puppy (or michievous older dog) eats glass, tacks, Christmas ornaments, or other sharp objects....


BEFORE the holiday go to a pharmacy and buy a box of cotton balls.

Be sure that you get COTTON balls...not the cosmetic puffs that are made from man-made fibers. Also, buy a quart of half-and-half coffee cream and put  it in the freezer.

Should your dog eat glass ornaments. Defrost the half-and-half and pour some in a bowl. Dip cotton balls into the cream and feed them to your dog.

Dogs under 10 lbs should eat 2 balls which you have first torn into smaller pieces. Dogs 10-50 lbs should eat 3-5 balls and larger dogs should eat 5-7.

You may feed larger dogs an entire cotton ball at once. (Dogs seem to really like these strange treats and eat them readily.)

As the cotton works its way through the digestive tract it will find all the glass pieces and wrap itself around them. Even the teeniest shards of glass will be caught and wrapped in the cotton fibers and the cotton will protect the intestines from damage by the glass. Your dogs stools will be really weird for a few days and you will have to be careful to check for fresh blood or a tarry appearance to the stool.

If either of the latter symptoms appear you should rush your dog to the vet for a checkup
but,  in most cases, the dogs will be just fine.

An actual experience: I can personally vouch for the cotton ball treatment. While I was at the vet waiting for him to return from lunch a terrified woman ran in with a litter of puppies who had demolished a wooden  crate along with large open staples.

The young vet had taken
x-rays which did show each of the puppies had swallowed several open staples.

He was preparing them for surgery when my wonderful vet came in and said no surgery.

I watched him wet several cotton balls, squeeze out the water and pop  them down their throats.

Within 24 hours every staple was accounted for.

This was a lesson I learned in the mid-1960s and have had to use several times on my brats. I wet the cotton balls and smear on some liverwurst and
they bolt it down and ask for more. The cotton always comes out with the object safely embedded."

Copyright reserved to Sandy Brock. Permission is hereby granted for any nonprofit reproduction by any person or group