Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Essential oils are compounds that give plants their scent and taste. They are volatile compounds, meaning that they evaporate quickly and release chemicals into the air. Essential oils are in many products: aromatherapy products, home fragrances, flavorings, personal care items (like shampoo), “natural” remedies, insect repellents, and so forth.
Essential oils can sometimes be dangerous for pets, so be aware of the possible risks if you use these products. Whether an essential oil will cause a problem for an animal depends on the type of exposure, the concentration of oil, the animal’s individual risk factors, and the type of oil.
The following essential oils are known to be toxic to cats and dogs, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.[1,2]
How Animals Are Exposed
Essential oils enter the body through the skin, by swallowing, or by inhalation. Pets are most often exposed to toxic levels when owners apply an essential oil directly to the skin or fur in an attempt to treat a skin condition or repel fleas. The oil is absorbed into the body through the skin, and the animal is further exposed by licking oil from the fur. The risk increases with higher concentrations of essential oils. Products containing a high percentage of essential oil (approaching 100%) should never be applied directly to an animal’s skin or hair.
Diffusers spread the fragrance of essential oils into a space. Passive diffusers work through evaporation: they send the scent of the oil, but not the oil itself, into the air. Passive diffusers are mainly a risk if a pet knocks one over and licks the oil or gets oil on the fur. Active diffusers (like nebulizers and ultrasonic diffusers) send actual particles of oil into the air. Oil from active diffusers can get onto an animal’s skin or be inhaled into the lungs, so the animal can have direct exposure to the oil without touching the diffuser. Strong odors from either type of diffuser can cause respiratory tract irritation.
Animals at Risk
Cats are at higher risk from essential oils than dogs are. Cats lack a liver enzyme that helps eliminate essential oils from the body. Cats and other animals that groom themselves are also more likely to swallow oil that’s collected on the fur.
Animals with asthma or other respiratory problems are at higher risk than others from inhalation exposure from diffusers. Birds are very sensitive to respiratory irritants, so diffusers can also cause problems for them.
Depending on the type of oil and the amount of exposure, essential oil toxicity can cause vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, tremors, loss of balance, skin irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing, low heart rate, low body temperature, rear leg paralysis, and liver failure.
Animals with symptoms of essential oil poisoning need veterinary care and might need to be hospitalized for intensive care.
Using Essential Oils Safely
Use essential oils with caution if you have pets. These tips can help keep your pets safe:
1. Benson K. Essential oils and cats. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/blog/essential-oils-cats/
2. Marshall J. Essential oils and dogs. Pet Poison Helpline. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/pet-safety-tips/essential-oils-dogs/
Photo by Kadarius Seegars on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Laboratory testing of blood, urine, and stool samples is routinely done for animals. Abnormalities often show up on lab tests before an animal has obvious symptoms. Even healthy pets need to be tested regularly for parasites. Well-animal tests can detect problems early and help veterinarians track changes over time. These are some of the reasons your veterinarian might recommend lab tests for your pet:
Complete Blood Count
A complete blood count measures the number, size, and shape of each type of cell in the blood.
Blood Chemistry Panel
Blood chemistry tests measure substances in the blood that indicate changes in organ function or other biological processes. Blood chemistry analysis is run as a panel of many individual tests. A chemistry panel doesn’t always give a diagnosis for a sick animal, but the results can help the veterinarian narrow down the list of possibilities. Veterinary laboratories offer many chemistry panels for different species and diagnostic needs. A small panel that’s sufficient for a young animal before routine surgery might not be appropriate for an ill animal or an older pet. These are a few of the tests commonly included in chemistry panels:
Analysis of the urine includes specific gravity (a measure of urine concentration), pH, chemistry results like glucose and protein levels, and microscopic evaluation for cells, crystals, and bacteria. Urinalysis can reveal urinary tract infection, support a diagnosis of diabetes, and help evaluate the function of the kidneys and other organs. A complete laboratory analysis—especially for a senior pet—should include urinalysis.
Parasites are very common in pet animals (unless they have received regular parasite prevention as recommended by a veterinarian). Many of the parasites that pets carry are contagious to people. At least once a year, pets should have a stool test for intestinal parasites like hookworms and roundworms. Dogs should also have a yearly blood test for heartworm disease.
Public domain image source: National Cancer Institute, Daniel Sone (photographer)
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The goals of first aid are to stabilize the animal for transport to a veterinary clinic, keep the animal’s injury from getting worse, and avoid harm to people handling the animal. First aid can save an animal’s life, but it does not replace care at a veterinary hospital.
Keep a first aid kit for your pets. Have contact information for animal poison control and nearby veterinary emergency clinics on hand. If possible, call the emergency clinic before you arrive with your pet.
Handling an injured animal
Bee stings/insect bites
If you can see the stinger in the animal’s skin, carefully remove it. Swelling of the face or throat that causes difficulty breathing is a medical emergency. Contact a veterinarian before giving any medication.
For external bleeding from a skin wound, apply gentle pressure with a gauze pad or clean cloth for at least a couple of minutes, until the blood clots. Do not use a tourniquet unless blood is spurting from a wound and the animal’s life is in danger (tourniquets can cause serious damage).
For thermal or electrical burns, remove the source of heat or electricity and apply cool compresses with a wet cloth. For chemical burns, flush the area with a large volume of water. Do not apply butter, ointment, or ice to the burn; seek veterinary care instead.
Coughing and reverse sneezing can be mistaken for choking. If the animal is truly choking on something in the throat, do a finger sweep of the mouth (only if you can do so without being bitten) and remove the object if possible. Be careful not to push the object farther down. If the animal collapses because of choking, try the Heimlich maneuver: lay the animal on its side and strike the rib cage a few times with the flat of your hand.
In most cases you won’t know if your pet really has a fracture until a veterinarian has taken radiographs. Minimize your pet’s movement as much as possible during transport. Don’t give pain medication unless a veterinarian has specifically recommended it. Don’t try to splint the limb; the splint might make things worse and you could be bitten in the attempt.
Heat stroke can happen quickly, especially if an animal is left in a car in warm weather. First aid should not delay immediate transport to a veterinary clinic. If you can’t transport the pet right away, move the pet into a cooler, shaded area. Apply towels soaked in cool water or pour cool water over the animal’s body, especially the neck, armpits, belly, and groin (between the back legs). Don’t use ice.
Not breathing, no heartbeat
Unfortunately, most animals with cardiac arrest die, even if they receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation. If you try resuscitation, it’s best to do it on the way to the veterinary clinic while someone else drives (no delay in transport). The first step is to check inside the mouth for an object blocking the airway. Then hold the mouth closed and breathe into the animal’s nose until the chest expands. Breathe every 4 to 6 seconds, checking after every few breaths to see if the animal can breathe on its own. After you have begun rescue breaths and if the animal still has no heartbeat, begin chest compressions. Lay the animal on its right side, place one hand under the ribs, and place the other hand on top of the ribs at the widest part of the rib cage (just behind the elbow). Push down on the ribs at least 1 inch, more for large dogs. For cats and other very small animals, cup the chest in one hand and squeeze the ribs between the thumb and fingers. Apply 80 to 120 compressions per minute for large dogs and 100 to 150 compressions per minute for cats and small dogs. Every 4 to 6 seconds, stop the chest compressions and give a breath. Continue until you have arrived at the clinic or the animal’s heart is beating and the animal is breathing.
If you think your pet has eaten or been exposed to a dangerous substance, call a veterinary clinic or an animal poison control hotline. Note the time of exposure, the amount you think your pet swallowed or was exposed to, and the symptoms. Keep the packaging material, if available, so the ingredients can be identified. If your pet vomits, take a sample of the vomit to the veterinary facility in case it’s needed for analysis. Don’t give anything to induce vomiting unless a veterinarian or animal poison control specialist has specifically recommended it.
If possible, time the seizure and note what the animal did before, during, and after the convulsions (for example, acting “spaced out,” paddling the legs, or urinating). Keep your hands away from the animal’s face and don’t try to hold the animal. Move objects that could hurt the animal out of the way. If the animal is having a seizure near stairs, the edge of a deck, or another drop, use a physical barrier to keep the animal from falling.
Snakebites can be very painful, so use a muzzle to protect yourself from being bitten by your pet. Take a photo of the snake if possible, but stay away from it! Don’t try to catch or kill the snake. Keep your pet as calm as you can while you travel to the veterinary clinic. Don’t apply a tourniquet or ice, and don’t try to draw venom out of the wound.
For more information
Photo by Oscar Sutton on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Prepare for pet injuries and emergencies by collecting first aid supplies in advance. You can purchase a pet first aid kit or make your own. Some of the items in a family first aid kit can also be used for animals.
Emergency clinic contact information
Keep a list of phone numbers of emergency clinics in your area and at travel destinations. Include animal poison control phone numbers in your list. Emergency clinics can be very busy, so if possible have contact information for multiple clinics in case the nearest one has a long wait. Call the clinic before you arrive if your pet’s condition allows time for this.
Vaccination records and medical history
The most important vaccination record for an emergency clinic to have is the rabies vaccination. A list of current medications and medical conditions will also be helpful, especially if someone who is less familiar with your pet’s medical history (like a pet sitter) might be taking your pet for treatment. Your primary care veterinary clinic might be closed when your pet needs emergency treatment, so have written medical records available for the emergency service.
Animals in pain can bite even if they are friendly at other times. A muzzle will help you transport your dog safely. The best type of muzzle for a dog is a basket muzzle that allows the dog to pant. You can find inexpensive basket muzzles at pet stores and online. If you plan in advance, you can reduce your dog’s anxiety about using a muzzle during an emergency by training your dog to like wearing a muzzle. See the Muzzle Up Project for tips on muzzle training. (Short version: muzzles are treat baskets!) Don’t try to put a muzzle on a dog if you would be bitten in the attempt.
Emergency muzzle alternatives include a leash, rope, necktie, or bandage material wrapped around the mouth. Items that hold the mouth completely closed should never cover the nostrils, should be used only for a very short time (just to get the animal into the car), and should not be used for animals that are vomiting. Another option is to cover the animal’s head with a towel or blanket, but take extra care—animals can bite through cloth, especially if they’re frightened or in pain.
Leash or pet carrier
A slip leash might be easier than a clip leash to put on a scared dog. For cats, consider keeping a hard plastic carrier with a top that can be removed. If you’ve picked up your cat with a towel, you can bundle both the cat and the towel into the bottom half of the carrier and then reattach the top half.
Gauze sponges and nonstick pads
Plain gauze squares are used to absorb blood and drainage but are uncomfortable if they stick to a wound. If you’re bandaging a wound, use a nonstick pad as the inner layer (touching the wound) and add layers of plain gauze over the nonstick pad as needed for absorption.
Self-adherent bandage wrap (Vet Wrap or similar)
Flexible self-adherent wrap is used as the outer layer of a bandage. This material bonds to itself but doesn’t stick to fur. It’s stretchy, so it can cut off circulation if it’s applied tightly. Don’t stretch it while you’re applying it; just lay it over the top of the gauze and press gently to adhere it to itself.
Adhesive bandage tape
If you have self-adherent wrap, you might not need adhesive bandage tape. Adhesive tape is used to hold a bandage together. For a first aid bandage, try to avoid sticking tape to the fur. If a pet needs a bandage that’s more secure than just self-adherent wrap over gauze, the pet needs to be seen at a veterinary clinic and someone there will be taking your bandage off anyway. Don’t use Band-Aids or other adhesive bandages meant for humans.
Tweezers (for removing ticks)
Eye wash or sterile saline is good to have on hand if a potentially damaging liquid gets splashed into an animal’s eyes. Use care when working around an injured animal’s face, though.
Towels are handy for mopping up messes, creating an impromptu stretcher, or soaking in water to cool an overheated animal.
Medications and other remedies
Medications like pain relievers and antihistamines should only be used if a veterinarian has specifically recommended them. Many pain relievers for humans, including common nonprescription pain relievers, are not safe for pets.
Some pet first aid supply lists include products to induce vomiting or poison remedies like activated charcoal. Never use products like these without consulting a veterinarian first. Inducing vomiting can be harmful. For example, caustic substances and foreign objects can damage the esophagus on the way down and again on the way back up.
Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Yeast skin infection (dermatitis) is common in dogs and also affects cats. Animals with allergies to pollen, grass, and other substances are especially prone to yeast dermatitis and yeast ear infections, so watch for the signs of infection if your pet gets itchy when the seasons change.
Yeast dermatitis is caused by Malassezia organisms on the skin. Malassezia yeasts are part of the normal collection of microorganisms that live on the skin and in the ears of animals. Yeast dermatitis occurs when something about the host animal—skin condition or immune function—causes Malassezia to overgrow or results in an abnormal immune response to Malassezia organisms. Examples of skin conditions that lead to yeast overgrowth are inflammation and increased moisture. Some animals are allergic to Malassezia and develop yeast dermatitis even when the number of organisms on the skin is relatively low.
These are some of the things that increase the risk of yeast dermatitis:
The most commonly affected areas are the face, neck, armpits, belly, inner thighs, feet, and ears, although yeast dermatitis can affect any part of the skin. Yeast dermatitis typically causes these signs:
Samples from affected areas are taken with various methods (tape pressed to the skin, a microscope slide pressed to the skin, cotton swabs, scraping with a blade, or possibly skin biopsy) and examined under a microscope. Animals with yeast dermatitis might have very few Malassezia organisms visible with a microscope. In animals with long-term or recurring yeast dermatitis, other tests are often done to look for an underlying cause.
Yeast dermatitis is treated with topical medication, oral medication, or both. Topical antifungal products include shampoos, mousses, wipes, creams, and so forth. Topical products need enough skin contact time to be effective, so shampoos usually come with instructions not to rinse the lather off for at least 10 minutes. A number of prescription oral antifungal medications are also used.
The choice of treatment type—topical, oral, or both—depends on the individual animal, the part of the body affected, the response to earlier treatment, and the ability of the animal’s owner to apply topical treatments. Not everyone has a place to bathe a large shaggy dog twice a week, for instance. Treatment for yeast dermatitis typically needs to continue for weeks.
For animals with recurring yeast dermatitis, the underlying cause also needs to be treated.
1. Bond R, Morris DO, Guillot J, et al. Biology, diagnosis and treatment of Malassezia dermatitis in dogs and cats clinical consensus guidelines of the World Association for Veterinary Dermatology. Vet Dermatol. 2020;31(1):28-74. doi:10.1111/vde.12809
Public domain image source: CDC/Janice Haney Carr
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The Five Freedoms, which describe animals’ basic welfare needs, are a framework to guide animal care. The Five Freedoms were first developed for the care of livestock, but they apply to all animals under human care.
The Five Freedoms aren’t meant to be rigid, absolute standards; for example, it’s not biologically possible to completely eliminate hunger and thirst. The original Five Freedoms focused on reducing animals’ negative experiences. To reflect better understanding of animal welfare, the framework has been updated to include giving animals positive experiences in addition to limiting negative ones.
Meeting animals’ welfare needs helps keep them physically and mentally sound. When you’re caring for pet animals—whether your pets are dogs or frogs—keep the Five Freedoms in mind to be sure you’re giving them everything they need to stay healthy and happy.
Freedom From Hunger and Thirst
Animals need fresh water and a diet that is complete and balanced for their species and life stage. Animal welfare is enhanced (meaning that animals will be happier) if the eating experience is also enjoyable. For pets, this could mean adding variety to the diet or using food puzzles from time to time.
Freedom From Discomfort
At its most basic, freedom from discomfort means having shelter and a comfortable place to rest. This category can also include everything in an animal’s environment. How might you enrich your pet’s environment to promote comfort and enjoyment? Would your elderly indoor cat like a soft, easily accessible window seat to watch birds? Could your snake use another hide in the vivarium?
Freedom From Pain and Injury
Animals should have veterinary care to prevent and treat disease and injury. Caretakers can take other steps to promote health and prevent pain, such as providing appropriate physical activity and avoiding painful experiences.
Freedom to Express Normal Behavior
The original Five Freedoms specified giving animals sufficient space, proper facilities, and the right amount of company of the animal’s own kind. Animal caretakers can go far beyond these basic recommendations. Think about behavior that is normal for your pet’s species. Dogs chase things and cats sharpen claws, and they need appropriate outlets, not punishment, for these behaviors. The need for companionship depends on the species. Some animals (like guinea pigs) need to live with at least one other of their own species, and others do well living alone.
Freedom From Fear and Distress
Animals should not be kept in conditions that create anxiety and stress. Pet owners can also give their animals positive experiences to support their mental health.
To read more about the Five Freedoms and pets, check out these articles by Dr. Zazie Todd on the Companion Animal Psychology website:
What Are the Five Freedoms (and What Do They Mean to You?)
The Five Domains Model Aims to Help Animals Thrive
1. Farm Animal Welfare Council. Report on priorities for animal welfare research and development. May 1993. Accessed March 25, 2022. https://edepot.wur.nl/134980
2. Mellor DJ. Moving beyond the “five freedoms” by updating the “five provisions” and introducing aligned “animal welfare aims.” Animals (Basel). 2016;6(10):59. doi:10.3390/ani6100059
Photo by little plant on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
A cataract is an opacity in the lens, a small translucent structure just behind the pupil of the eye. The lens transmits light to the retina at the back of the eye. Because cataracts block light from reaching the retina, they can cause blindness. In some cases cataracts also lead to eye pain.
Cataracts are most common in older animals but also occur in young animals. An animal can have a cataract in just 1 eye or in both eyes at the same time.
Cataracts begin as small opacities that don’t have much effect on vision; the animal can see around them. Over time, some cataracts progress to involve most or all of the lens, reducing vision.
Cataracts commonly cause uveitis, or inflammation inside the eye. Uveitis can be uncomfortable. Cataracts can also cause lens luxation (lens slipping out of its normal position). Lens luxation increases the risk of glaucoma, which is painful and can also cause blindness.
Nuclear sclerosis of the lens is a normal aging change that looks similar to cataracts but doesn’t cause blindness or inflammation. The lens becomes more dense with age. In older animals, increased lens density makes the lens look cloudy, so the pupil appears bluish-gray instead of black. Unlike cataracts, nuclear sclerosis doesn’t block light, so it doesn’t interfere with vision.
Cataracts in dogs are often hereditary. Some of the many dog breeds that have hereditary cataracts are poodles, Havanese, Boston terriers, silky terriers, and cocker spaniels. Animals with hereditary cataracts should not be used for breeding.
Cataracts can also be caused by other conditions. Diabetes is a common cause of cataracts. Owners of a diabetic animal should know that their pet might go blind from cataracts. Cataracts can also be caused by trauma, inflammation, aging, toxins, and malnutrition. In many cases, the cause is not known.
An animal with a cataract usually has no symptoms (other than the opacity in the lens) unless the cataract blocks vision or causes uveitis. The signs of vision loss can be very subtle in animals, especially pets that live in environments that don’t change very much. Indoor pets know their way around the furniture and might not start bumping into things until they are nearly blind. Reluctance to jump up, navigating stairs more slowly than usual, and having a hard time finding food or the water bowl can be signs of impaired vision—or of other problems like arthritis.
The signs of uveitis caused by cataracts are also subtle and easy to mistake for other eye problems. Redness, drainage or discharge, and squinting are signs of eye discomfort from any cause. An animal with these signs should be checked by a veterinarian without delay.
Examination of the eye with an ophthalmoscope is used to diagnose cataracts, distinguish between cataracts and normal nuclear sclerosis, and look for uveitis and other problems within the eye. Blood and urine tests are used to diagnose diabetes and other conditions that can cause cataracts.
Small cataracts that don’t cause vision loss might not need to be treated right away, but they should be monitored. Even small cataracts can cause uveitis, and the earlier uveitis is treated, the better for the patient.
Cataracts are treated either medically or surgically. The aim of medical treatment is to keep the eye comfortable by managing inflammation and other complications. No known medical treatment can prevent a cataract from progressing to the stage of causing blindness.
Surgical removal of the lens is the only treatment that can restore vision in an animal that is blind because of cataracts. Lens luxation might also require surgical treatment. Before considering cataract surgery, veterinary ophthalmologists perform other tests to be sure the animal is a good candidate for surgery and doesn’t have other eye problems that might impair vision.
1. Gelatt KN, Mackay EO. Prevalence of primary breed-related cataracts in the dog in North America. Vet Ophthalmol. 2005;8(2):101-11. doi:10.1111/j.1463-5224.2005.00352.x
Photo by Ezequiel Garrido on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
As COVID-19 cases increase, more pets are exposed to the virus, so it’s time to review what we know about COVID-19 and animals. The content of this article is current as of February 7, 2022.
Can animals get COVID-19?
A number of mammal species, including dogs and cats, can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Infection in animals is rare compared with infection in people. Most animals infected with the virus have had close contact with people who had COVID-19. Some species have been experimentally infected under controlled conditions; these species might or might not be able to get infected naturally. The virus has not been found in birds, reptiles, amphibians, or fish.
Animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 don’t necessarily get sick. Domestic cats, large cats, dogs, ferrets, hamsters, mink, and gorillas have developed symptoms after being infected. Infection with no symptoms has been found in rabbits, bats, white-tailed deer, and many other species.
Symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection in animals are usually mild and nonspecific (lots of other things cause the same symptoms):
Can pets spread COVID-19 to people or other animals?
The risk of catching COVID-19 from a pet is very low. There is no evidence that animals are a significant source of infection for people or that animals carry the virus on their fur. An exception is that SARS-CoV-2 was found to spread in both directions between mink and humans on mink farms in Denmark.
Some animals can infect other animals of the same species. For example, SARS-CoV-2 spreads among white-tailed deer populations without causing symptoms.
Someone in my household has COVID-19. How should I protect my pets?
People with COVID-19 can spread the virus to dogs, cats, and ferrets, although serious illness is rare in animals. The CDC recommends that people with COVID-19 avoid close contact with pets, stay in a room away from pets as much as possible, and wear a mask if they need to be near pets. People carrying the infection should also wash their hands before and after handling animals, avoid sharing food with animals, and avoid kissing their pets or letting their pets lick them in the face. There is no reason to remove pets from the home unless their caregiver is unable to take care of them.
Don’t put a mask on an animal or do anything else that might block its airflow. Increase ventilation or use air filters instead. Don’t use hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, or surface cleaners on an animal.
I think my pet might have COVID-19. What should I do?
If your pet has symptoms that seem similar to COVID-19, call your veterinarian. If you have COVID-19, don’t take your pet to the clinic yourself. Your veterinarian will advise you on whether your pet should be seen at the clinic.
Can I have my pet tested for COVID-19?
Don’t use a home test on an animal. Routine animal testing for COVID-19 is not currently recommended because infection is rare in animals, the symptoms are more likely to be caused by something else, and animals aren’t a significant source of SARS-CoV-2 infection in humans. Decisions about animal testing are made by a veterinarian in consultation with public health officials. A veterinarian will need to rule out more common causes of the symptoms before considering SARS-CoV-2 testing. Testing might be done for animals that meet criteria like having exposure to an infected person and having symptoms compatible with SARS-CoV-2 infection (with no other cause found).
Can my pet be vaccinated for COVID-19?
Vaccines for dogs and cats are not available. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, vaccines are being developed for some animal species that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. An experimental COVID-19 vaccine has been given to zoo animals at risk of getting sick from the infection. Mink will likely also be a priority species for vaccine development because of their potential to spread the infection to humans.
Please see these sources for updates and more information:
Public domain image credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH. Source: NIH Image Gallery
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Constipation in a cat should never be ignored. Most cases of constipation are mild and last only a day or two. But cats with long-term or repeated bouts of constipation are at risk for more serious medical problems.
Constipation is the infrequent or difficult passing of feces. Because the colon removes water from intestinal contents, feces that stays in the colon becomes hard and dry. In time, as more feces accumulates in the colon, the mass of hard feces gets too large to pass through the pelvic opening. This more severe form of constipation, when feces can’t pass at all, is called obstipation. A cat with obstipation has to be treated in the hospital to get the impacted feces out of the colon.
Some cats with chronic (long-term) constipation and obstipation develop megacolon, a distended colon that no longer works properly. The colon wall becomes stretched and limp, so it can’t push feces toward the anus. Treatments that help relieve constipation don’t work as well for megacolon, so cats with megacolon might need surgery.
Some of the many causes of constipation are medical disorders, medication side effects, obstruction of the colon (for example, by tumors or pelvic fractures), and ingested foreign material. Dehydration makes constipation worse. Cats that avoid the litter box because of orthopedic pain or stress—conflict with another cat, change of routine, illness, and so forth—can develop constipation. Megacolon can be caused by abnormal nerve control of the colon muscles (something the cat is born with).
A cat that is squatting and straining in the litter box might or might not be constipated. Male cats with urinary blockage, which is a medical emergency, also squat and strain. Animals with diarrhea have an increased urge to defecate but might pass only a little bit of liquid stool. Urinary blockage, diarrhea, and constipation can all result in a cat squatting in the litter box, looking uncomfortable, and not producing much of anything.
The symptoms of constipation depend on the duration and cause and whether it has progressed to obstipation and megacolon:
A large amount of feces in the colon can be found with physical examination or radiographs (x-ray images). Other diagnostic tests are used to find the cause of constipation and assess the overall health of the patient. Megacolon is diagnosed with radiographs.
Chronic constipation tends to become less responsive to treatment over time. The type of treatment depends on the cause and severity of constipation. Treatments for constipation include increased hydration, laxatives, medications to increase intestinal movement, enemas, and a modified diet (which could be a high-fiber diet or a low-residue diet depending on the individual case). Never give a cat a laxative or enema unless your veterinarian has specifically recommended it; some human products aren’t safe for cats.
For cats with obstipation, the impacted feces must be removed in the hospital. One method is to remove the feces manually while the cat is under anesthesia. A newer method involves placing a tube through the nose into the stomach (cats tolerate this surprisingly well) and infusing a solution over several hours to break down the mass of feces so it can pass.
Megacolon is managed at first with the same treatments used for constipation. If those treatments no longer work, megacolon can be treated by surgical removal of the colon. Most cats do well after this surgery.
Photo by Zoë Gayah Jonker on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Holiday celebrations can be stressful for pets. Visitors, changes in routine, changes in food, unfamiliar scents and objects in the home, traveling, and noise can all cause anxiety for animals. Animals are more likely to bite when they’re scared or anxious, so minimizing sources of stress for your pets will help keep the holidays happy for everyone.
Limit Stressful Situations
To identify sources of stress for your pets, think like an animal. Animals feel safest when their routines and environment are predictable. Keep meal times, nap times, and exercise and play schedules about the same as usual. You might want to sleep late on a holiday (OK, the day after a holiday), but if your pets are used to a very consistent morning routine, this change could contribute to stress.
It’s normal and very human to want to include pets in our celebrations, but be careful not to think of your animals as little people in fur (or scale or feather) coats. They won’t feel left out if they’re not invited to a party. Most animals would rather be in a nice quiet room than in the middle of holiday hubbub. Think about your pets’ usual behavior around strangers and noise, and let them stay wherever they are most comfortable and safe.
Be aware of foods that aren’t safe for animals, especially if you have visitors who don’t know what your pets should and shouldn’t eat. Chocolate, xylitol sweetener, grapes, raisins, onion, garlic, and raw yeast dough are some of the foods that can be dangerous for animals. Limit or avoid table food for your pets; fatty or rich food can cause digestive upset. A holiday trip to the emergency veterinary clinic is not on anyone’s wish list.
Contact your veterinarian in advance if your pet is afraid of fireworks or has travel anxiety. Your veterinarian might recommend prescription or nonprescription antianxiety medication, depending on the symptoms. Plan ahead for this. Your pet might need a veterinary examination before medication can be prescribed.
Watch for Signs of Stress
The early signs of fear and anxiety can be subtle. Owners sometimes don’t realize their pets are in distress until the behavior escalates to aggression (an attempt to remove a perceived threat). Watch for any changes from the usual behavior. Some animals withdraw and hide in response to stress; others become hyperactive or clingy.
Signs of Anxiety in Dogs
Signs of Anxiety in Cats
Photo by Tyler Farmer on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.