Does Your Cat Have a Urinary Blockage? Learn About Symptoms and Treatments
Your cat’s litter box is probably something you regard as a chore. You clean it, dump the contents, and move on with your day. But the litter box can also be an important clue to your cat’s urinary health. This article will provide an overview of cat urinary blockage, a serious condition in which the first symptoms may only be apparent by paying attention to your cat’s litter box usage.
What is a cat urinary blockage?
Cat urinary blockage is, quite simply, when your cat cannot pass urine. The inability to pass urine is caused by a blockage in the urethra, which is the tube through which urine flows from the bladder to exit the body. The blockage can be composed of one or more of the following:
- A build-up of urinary crystals
- A matrix plug of inflammatory mucus
- Small urinary stones (uroliths)
- Swelling and spasm of the urethral sphincter muscle
Cat urinary blockage is a painful condition that can quickly become dangerous for your cat. If not promptly treated, this condition can be fatal because the blockage causes elevated levels of potassium and other urine toxins that the kidneys normally flush out. These urine toxins can cause serious metabolic imbalances and can even affect your cat’s heart. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, “Complete obstruction can cause death of the cat in 3–6 days.”
Underlying causes of cat urinary blockage
There can be multiple underlying causes of cat urinary blockage:
- Male gender – Cat urinary blockage primarily affects male cats because the male urethra is longer and narrower than that of females.
- Dry food – Cats who eat only dry food are more likely to develop urinary blockage because the dry food concentrates the urine and makes it highly alkaline. This alkalinity can cause crystals (struvite crystalluria) to form.
- Dehydration – If your cat does not have free access to plenty of clean water, it could cause your cat to become dehydrated. Dehydration also concentrates the urine and increases alkalinity.
- Stress – The role of stress is not fully understood but it is thought that stress triggers an inflammatory response in the bladder, also called cystitis.
Watch for these six symptoms of cat blockage
It’s important not to delay getting your cat to the vet if you notice any of these symptoms because of the risk of fatality if not treated quickly. Urinary obstruction can cause cats to rapidly deteriorate within the first 24 hours of onset of symptoms, with the risk of kidney failure and death within three to six days if not treated.
- Abnormal litter box usage – Pay attention to the presence of urine in your cat’s litter box. Lack of urine in the litter box is one of the first clues that your cat is having a urinary blockage. Your cat may visit the litter box frequently and may strain with little to no urine flow. This can be easily mistaken for constipation so check the litter box carefully. It can be hard to detect blood in the urine in most litter, but if you do see blood in the urine this is also a symptom of something wrong in your cat’s urinary tract. If you do not see the normal amount of urine clumps, or if you see blood, you should take your cat to your veterinarian for an examination.
- Excessive grooming of genital area – If you notice your cat licking and grooming their genital area, this may be a sign of pain and irritation in the bladder. Check the area that your cat is grooming to make sure there is no external cause, such as fleas. If the skin looks fine, then the problem is probably internal and could be a urinary blockage. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose this definitively.
- Distended hard bladder when gently palpated – Detecting a distended bladder can be challenging for a pet owner but, if your cat is docile, you may be able to gently feel your cat’s abdomen to see if the bladder is hard and distended. The bladder may become as large as a tennis ball if the urethra is completely blocked. If you can feel a hard bladder, you need to immediately get your cat to the veterinarian because this is an unmistakable sign of cat urinary blockage. This video provides instructions on how to do an at-home abdominal palpitation on your cat:
- Vocalizing – The amount of vocalizing that cats do can vary widely. Some cats vocalize a lot for no apparent reason. But if your cat is normally quiet and starts vocalizing persistently, this is a sign that your cat is in pain. If your cat starts vocalizing, check the litter box and also palpate the abdomen, if your cat will allow it. If not, take your cat to your veterinarian for an exam.
- Lethargy – Lethargy is another key indicator that something is wrong with your cat. While most cats do enjoy a lot of napping, lethargy looks quite different. Lethargy means that your cat is unresponsive to stimuli that normally get a reaction. For example, a lethargic cat might be unresponsive to playtime, toys, food, or snuggling. If your cat is lethargic, this is a sign of pain and distress and your cat needs to be seen by your veterinarian.
- Vomiting – Many cats vomit occasionally, throwing up a hair ball or, if they’ve been outside, undigested grass. Vomiting more often than that, however, is a distress sign. If your cat is vomiting without producing a hair ball, you should check the other indicators (litter box usage, abdominal distention) and take your cat to the veterinarian.
How to Treat Cat Urinary Blockages
Getting your cat to the vet in time is the key to successful treatment of urinary blockage. Fortunately, this dangerous condition can be managed quite well. Here are some of the approaches your vet may take in treating your cat’s urinary blockage:
- Finalize diagnosis:
- Imaging – First, your vet will need to do an ultrasound and/or X-rays to determine any underlying causes and to provide information to create the best treatment plan.
- Blood work – This is an important step to diagnose if any serious damage has been done to your cat’s kidneys. The blood work will identify renal values and potassium levels caused by the blocked kidneys. Additional blood work will be needed after treatment to ensure that kidney levels are back to normal.
- Get the urine flowing again:
- Empty the bladder – To relive pressure and eliminate the buildup of toxic substances, the vet will empty your cat’s bladder, usually via a catheter. The catheter may be left in place for 24 to 72 hours. This procedure will provide immediate relief for the pain your cat is experiencing.
- Clean the bladder – The vet will likely infuse your cat’s bladder with sterile solution to remove infection, blood and debris. This procedure will help the bladder begin to heal.
- Surgery – Your cat may need surgery to restore urine flow; see a more detailed discussion of surgery in the section lower on this page, on preventative measures.
- Restore normal health and function:
- Hydration – Intravenous fluids will be administered to dilute the urine to normal levels and restore pH.
- Medication – Your vet will select appropriate medications which may include pain relivers, anti-spasmodics, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and/or anti-anxiety medications.
- Check progress and look for other types of damage:
- Heart check – Your vet will check your cat’s heart to ensure that there is no damage, such as arrhythmia.
- Blood work – A second round of blood work will confirm that the treatment is working to restore your cats’ kidney functioning to normal levels.
- Take preventative measures:
- Dietary changes – A change to a special diet may be necessary to keep your cat’s urine at an appropriate pH level and to minimize the amount of dissolved minerals in the urine. In addition, your cat should be fed primarily on canned food instead of dry food.
- Surgery – This is an important consideration for fixing urinary blockage and there are two options for cat owners.
- The ‘standard’ surgery for this condition is simply the surgical removal of the blockage via cystotomy (making an incision into the bladder and removing the blockage). This costs about $3,000 and is effective but it does not prevent the cat from getting a urinary blockage again. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that “As many as 40-50% of cats will have another episode of FIC within one year, but veterinarians cannot predict which cats will have relapses.”
- The more advanced surgical option is the perineal urethrostomy, or PU surgery. This surgery costs about $4,000 to $5,000 and involves the removal of the narrowest part of the cat’s urinary tract, then reconstructing and widening the urethra. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons: “This procedure is intending to provide a permanent opening that allows crystals, mucus plugs, or small stones to pass out of the urethra; this minimizes the chance of re-obstruction.” Furdunkin has experienced veterinary surgeons on staff who can perform this delicate surgery.
Tips to Help to Prevent Cat Urinary Blockage
If you have a neutered, indoor male cat there are several important steps you can take to help your cat avoid getting a urinary blockage:
- Annual vet visits for health checks – Especially if your cat is an indoor cat, remember to bring him or her to the vet for an annual checkup. This is often neglected for indoor cats because the owner may think that because the cat is not exposed to the outdoors, it is safe from illness. This is not the case. Your cat needs regular checkups just like you do.
- Ensure your cat is not stressed – This can be a bit challenging to accomplish because we do not always know what is stressing a cat. Here are some possibilities to consider:
- Safety – If you have a multi-cat household, or a household with dogs, your cats will need a place to get away by themselves. This can be as simple as a few boxes with doorways cut into them, or as elaborate as a multi-tier cat tree with hammocks, dens, scratching ramps, and toys.
- Enrichment – Indoor cats need to be able to play and keep themselves occupied to reduce stress. Enrichment can include scratching posts, lots of playtime with their humans, toys, food puzzles, and an outlet for hunting behaviors (e.g. a birdfeeder to watch).
- Love – To feel secure and de-stressed, your cat needs lots of human love and interaction.
- Medication – Even with lots of safety, enrichment and love, some cats may simply be anxious and stressed by nature. For this type of cat, talk to your veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication to see if it can help your cat achieve a healthier level of calmness.
- Access to multiple litter boxes that are cleaned twice daily – Cats are clean and tidy by nature and they don’t like dirty litter boxes. You should always have one more litter box than the number of cats in the home and the litter boxes need to be kept scrupulously clean. A dirty or crowded litter box may discourage your cat from using it, which could lead to bladder irritation if the cat is holding back from urinating.
- Keep your cat hydrated – For hydration, it is essential that your cat have round the clock access to fresh water. Do not feed your cat exclusively on dry food. Your cat needs canned food to naturally increase hydration.
- Special food – You may need to feed special food that contains low levels of magnesium and phosphorus to promote a healthy urinary pH. Your veterinarian will advise you on whether this is necessary.
While cat urinary blockages are a serious feline health issue, your local veterinary experts at Furdunkin can help. Furdunkin is the area’s premier small animal veterinary clinic and emergency hospital. Contact us by clicking here or call us at 717-937-8827 to make an appointment. We serve pets and their people in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas such as York, Lebanon, Chester and Berks counties. Furdunkin is proud to be an ethical provider of veterinary services.
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TL;DR Summary – Cat Urinary Blockages
Feline urinary blockages are a serious health concern for cats. Symptoms include lack of urine in the litter box, straining, licking or grooming the genital area, a hard distended bladder, vocalizing, lethargy and/or vomiting. Cat urinary blockages can be fatal quickly, within three to six days, so don’t delay in getting your cat to the veterinarian. Your vet can successfully treat your cat through removal of the blockage, hydration, medications, and/or surgery.