A gastrointestinal obstruction refers to the blockage anywhere from the stomach (gastro) to the intestines. Thankfully gastrointestinal blockages are less common in cats than they are in dogs, however, they can and do occur.
Blockages can develop anywhere along the small or large intestine, it may be partial or complete. If a full blockage occurs, food, water and gastric juices can build up behind the site of the obstruction and eventually cause a rupture.
The most common cause of blockage is ingestion of a foreign body, other causes include:
- Intussusception (a condition where the bowel telescopes in upon itself)
- Hernia occurs when part of the intestines protrude through the abdominal wall
- Volvulus (twisting of the intestine) which may run concurrently with a hernia
- Pyloric stenosis (a narrowing of the tract where material flows out of the stomach, most commonly seen in Siamese)
- Adhesions (fibrous bands of tissue which can form after abdominal surgery)
- Heavy tapeworm infestation
Ingestion of foreign body is seen most often in younger cats, common items include string, tinsel, clothing, rubber bands and plastic. Cats with pica (again, most commonly seen in Siamese) are at risk of developing a gastrointestinal obstruction. Tumours are most often found in older cats. Hairballs are an extremely common cause of the gastrointestinal blockage, they can occur in any cat, but longhaired cats are at greater risk.
What are the symptoms of an intestinal blockage?
Blockages may be partial or complete, and symptoms will come and go. Once a full obstruction occurs, food and water cannot pass and is a medical emergency. Symptoms may include:
- Vomiting, if the blockage is high up, vomiting will occur shortly after eating
- Diarrhea may occur if the blockage is partial
- Constipation or a complete absence of defecating
- Swollen, bloated abdomen
- Painful abdomen
- Anorexia (loss of appetite)
- Weight loss
- Hunched over position
If a complete obstruction has occurred, your cat will not pass any feces but may vomit dark brown material with a fecal odour.
Left untreated a gastrointestinal blockage can lead to death and necrosis in the affected region, resulting in death.
How is an intestinal blockage diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination on your cat and obtain a medical history from you, including onset of symptoms. He may find evidence of a foreign body such as string in the mouth, bunched up intestines, painful/swollen abdomen. Diagnostic tests will need to be performed, and may include:
Imaging tests such as x-ray or ultrasound may reveal foreign bodies, hairballs or tumours.
Barium contrast study will be necessary to look for telescoping of the intestines, pyloric stenosis or intussusception. This involves feeding barium to your cat which coats the lining of the intestines, then performing a x-ray.
Endoscopy – A thin plastic tube with a light and camera at the end is inserted into the mouth and into the stomach to look for the presence of foreign bodies, tumours etc. In some cases, if a foreign body is found, it may be able to be removed at this time. Tissue samples may be taken during endoscopy.
How is an intestinal blockage treated?
Your veterinarian may need to stabilise your cat before treatment commences. This will involve the administration of IV fluids to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
Most cases of gastrointestinal obstruction require surgery. That includes tumours, hernias, twisted or telescoped intestines and pyloric stenosis.
- Strictures may be stretched via endoscopy, or in severe cases where scarring has occurred, the affected part of the intestine may need to be surgically removed.
- If death has occurred in the intestines, that portion will need to be surgically removed.
- Anti-worming medication to treat tapeworm.
Preventing gastrointestinal obstructions:
Obviously, not all conditions can be prevented, however, foreign body ingestion can be reduced by not allowing your cat to play with string, thread. Cats should be groomed at least once a week, more often if you have a longhaired cat.
Cats prone to hairballs can benefit from having fibre added to their diet or the addition of lubricants (such as butter) to help the hairballs pass through the body. Read here for more information on home remedies for hairballs.