At a glance
A gastrointestinal obstruction is a life-threatening medical situation where a blockage occurs anywhere along the GI tract. Blockages 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, causing the contents of the GI tract to spill out into the abdominal cavity.
The most common cause of blockage is ingestion of a foreign body (hair ties are a favourite). Siamese and related breeds can be prone to a pica, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which the cat ingests non-food objects such as clothing, which puts them at risk of obstruction.
- Intussusception (a condition where the bowel telescopes in upon itself) can be caused by parasites, linear foreign body and gastric motility disorders.
- A 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 that can form after abdominal surgery)
- Heavy tapeworm infestation
Young cats are most likely to have ingested a foreign body; common items include string, tinsel, clothing, rubber bands and plastic objects. Cats with pica (again, most commonly seen in Siamese) are at risk of developing a gastrointestinal obstruction. Tumours occur most frequently in older cats. Hairballs are a common cause of gastrointestinal blockage, they can develop in any cat, but long-haired cats are at higher risk.
Once a full obstruction occurs, food and water cannot pass and is a medical emergency.
- Vomiting, if the blockage is high up, vomiting will occur shortly after eating
- Diarrhea may occur if the blockage is partial or a complete absence of defecation
- 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.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, which will include a thorough check inside the mouth and abdominal palpitation. There may be evidence of a foreign body such as a string in the mouth (under the tongue), bunched up intestines, painful/swollen abdomen.
Imaging studies: X-ray or ultrasound may reveal foreign bodies, hairballs or tumours.
Barium contrast study: A diagnostic test to evaluate suspected gastrointestinal disorders. Barium sulfate is a white radio-opaque metallic powder, once swallowed, the barium coats the inside walls of the gastrointestinal tract which shows up the structures as bright white on x-rays. The veterinarian can also monitor the transit time of the barium during this procedure and evaluate 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 an x-ray.
Endoscopy: A thin plastic tube with a light and camera at the end (endoscope) is inserted into the mouth and into the stomach to look for the presence of foreign objects, hairballs or tumours. 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.
The veterinarian may need to stabilise your cat before treatment commences, which will involve the administration of intravenous fluids to correct dehydration and electrolyte derangements.
Treatment of the obstruction:
- Most causes of gastrointestinal obstruction will require surgery under general anesthesia. That includes tumours, hernias, twisted or telescoped intestines, ingestion of foreign objects and pyloric stenosis.
- Endoscopy is a procedure that uses an endoscope to stretch strictures or in some cases to remove the obstruction. If scarring has occurred, surgical removal of the affected portion will be necessary.
- Surgical resection, in which dead tissue is removed, and the cut areas are re-connected (intestinal anastomosis).
- Anti-worming medication to treat tapeworm.
It is not possible to prevent all conditions.
Do not allow your cat to play with string or thread and be careful with Christmas decorations which can be attractive to cats.
Groom cats at least once a week, and daily if you have a longhaired cat. It only takes a minute or two, and most cats enjoy it.
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.