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Constipated pets: the bottom line direct from the vet surgeon.

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Constipation is not a disease. In its simplest form it is a symptom of irregular or difficult defecation; at its worst, it is the total absence of defecation. Constipation may first of all be caused by dietary reasons. An exclusive protein diet, with no fibre content, could certainly be the cause of hard stools. The ingestion of hair, dirt or gravel could also create stools which are hard to void, yet, as in Marley’s case, by far the most common cause of constipation are bones, which due to their high mineral content, can make stools become as hard as stone.

Pets suffering from constipation should be taken to a vet as soon as possible to determine the exact cause and seek correct treatment
Constipation may also be a symptom of emotional or physical stress. A classic example of this is when dogs and cats are put into kennels and suffer separation anxiety. Sometimes, surgical procedures make it too painful for the cat or dog to crouch down and they prefer to retain their stool. Inevitably, they become constipated.

Then there are a whole range of rectal conditions that may bring about constipation in the dog. In long-haired pets, the area around the anus may become so matted with fur that it forms a blockage and prevents normal defecation. Impacted anal glands is also a fairly common occurrence, as are anal glands that have developed a painful abscess. Both situations make it too painful for the dog to defecate, yet regular visits to the vet to have its anal glands drained will prevent unnecessary discomfort. But constipation may also be a symptom of an underlying and potentially serious condition.

More serious diseases such as tumours in the area, an enlarged prostate gland, or even perineal hernias can play a direct role in restricting normal defecation, and this will eventually result in constipation. Other serious cases such as kidney failure or underactive thyroid may cause dehydration. The consequent lack of sufficient bodily fluids causes the stools to become dry and hard and constipation follows. Neuromuscular problems such as spinal injuries or deformities may also bring about a sluggish voiding of faecal material, leading to constipation.

Whatever the cause, pets that are badly constipated quickly lose an interest in what’s happening around them. They tend to adopt a hunched and miserable look. They reduce their food intake or stop eating altogether; this makes them more prone to dehydration and the situation is aggravated. In serious cases, they may start to vomit, and in critical cases they may develop a condition called megacolon.

Megacolon is a situation where the colon becomes so swollen with dry and impacted faeces that it stops functioning. Left untreated, bacteria present in the faeces will cross the colonic barrier and enter the blood stream, leading to death. Treatment of megacolon is possible, but it entails surgical removal of the affected section of the colon, with all its complications.

The bottom line is that pets suffering from constipation should be taken to a vet as soon as possible to determine the exact cause and seek correct treatment. Cases of constipation where there is no underlying cause are generally treated with an enema to clear the blockage of dry and impacted faecal matter.

Depending on the severity of the case, your veterinarian will advise on the treatment required. In these cases time is always of the essence as the longer the hard stools remain within your pet, the dryer and harder they become. If an enema is required, the cat or dog would first need to be sedated to allow the vet or veterinary assistant to work properly and without undue distress to the animal.

by: Dr Martin Debattista is a veterinary surgeon.
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