Urinary blockages, also called a feline urethral obstruction (FUO) or a urinary obstruction, is one of the most common and life-threatening problems in cats. Veterinary medical staff will often abbreviate the problems to say the cat is “blocked” or write the letters U.O. for Urinary Obstruction.
You may have heard of this serious condition, but did you know that autumn is the most common time of year for male cats to "block?"
What is a Feline Urethral Obstruction?
A feline urethral obstruction happens when small stones and protein-rich material are formed that literally block the flow of urine from the bladder through the urethra, preventing the cat from urinating.
Why Are Urinary Obstructions More Common During the Fall?
The theory is that cats typically drink more water during the hot summer months. As the staggering summer heat eases up and the seasons quickly shift to cooler fall temperatures, cats are likely to consume less water. As the cat drinks less, the urine becomes more concentrated and the likelihood of an accumulation of “debris” occurs which is more likely to cause a plug.
Although some veterinarians believe there is an increased incidence of feline urethral obstruction in the fall, they can occur any time of year.
What Animals Can Experience a Urinary Blockage?
Although any animal is susceptible to a urethral obstruction, male cats are at greater risk for feline urethral obstruction than female cats because their urethras are narrow and long, making them easier to plug. However, female cats can also “block.” If your female cat has symptoms of a urinary blockage, please see your vet immediately.
What are Signs of a Blocked Cat?
Feline urethral obstruction (the “blocked cat”) is a potentially fatal condition, usually seen in male cats, during which urine is prevented from leaving the bladder. The urethra may be plugged with mucus, urinary sediment, inflammatory cells, or small bladder stones.
Signs of a urinary obstruction in cats include:
- Straining to go to the bathroom
- Excessive vocalization
- Pain when his abdomen is touched
As the condition progresses, cats may show evidence of abdominal pain and howl when touched or when trying to urinate. Many cats will vomit. Some cats will have a wide based gait (they walk funny) leading some owners to believe they are having trouble walking or are lame.
Your normally sweet cat may even swat or bite you when you try to touch him. This is because he feels horrible.
If your pet tries multiple times to urinate and produces just a few drops of urine or none at all, chances are good that he is completely or partially blocked. Many owners misinterpret the straining in the litter box for constipation.
If you suspect your cat has feline urethral obstruction, see your veterinarian IMMEDIATELY!
How Serious is a Urinary Blockage in Cats?
Feline urethral obstructions are life threatening!
Within 24 hours, a cat may become lethargic, not wanting to get up, move, or eat. Within 72 hours of a feline urethral obstruction, cats can die.
If urine is prevented from exiting the bladder, pressure within the urinary tract can damage the kidneys. Urine contains metabolic waste products that the body must eliminate; urethral obstruction causes these toxins to build up. In addition, the bladder wall may be stretched to the point where muscle function is lost; in the worst cases, it ruptures.
A urethral obstruction is an emergency situation and you should go to your veterinarian immediately if you suspect that your pet is “blocked.” If not treated quickly, pets with a urinary obstruction can die a painful death from complications.
What Happens When You Take Your Blocked Cat to the Vet
As soon as you arrive at your veterinarian’s office, your cat will be examined to determine if his bladder is enlarged and whether an obstruction is likely. This is a quick and easy diagnosis by the veterinary team gently feeling the size of your cats bladder by feeling the abdomen.
If an obstruction is confirmed, your cat will likely be rushed to the back where emergency treatment and stabilization will be initiated.
Your veterinarian may recommend any or all of the following diagnostics and procedures:
- Blood work to assess toxin levels and hydration status
- Urine exam to look for an infection and/or crystals
- Urine culture to determine if there is an infection and, if so, what bacteria may be responsible
- X-rays to look for bladder or urethral stones
- IV catheter placement, which allows for fluids and medications to be administered
- Urinary catheter placement, which provides a way to flush the bladder and keep it empty for several days while inflammation subsides
Treatment involves IV fluids, antibiotics, medications to relax the urethra in order to allow material to pass through it
In some cats surgery may be required to remove bladder stones. If cats repeatedly “block” a surgery called a “P.U.” or a perineal urethrostomy and be performed. For more information, please read perineal urethrostomy. This surgery makes the urethral opening permanently larger, thus reducing the risk of future obstructions.
Vet Tip: If your cat does block, you should discuss with your vet if he/she thinks your cat is a good candidate for a P.U. Many vets are hesitant to mention this initially, as the cost to hospitalize a blocked feline can easily reach $1,000. Sadly, if vets initially disclose that the condition might later require a P.U. surgery, yet another pricey invoice, many pet parents choose euthanasia. Please forgive us if your veterinarian doesn't mention this. If you were faced with cat owners choosing euthanasia after learning that this isn't a one-time solution, you would quickly learn to keep your mouth shut and only initiate that discussion when and if it is applicable.
Can Feline Urinary Blockages Be Prevented?
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to prevent feline urethral obstructions, as it is not always known what causes them in the first place. Diet, water intake, bladder infections and obesity can have a role in the formation of urinary stones and sludge which cause the urinary blockage.
Bladder infections may have a role in the formation of urinary sediment, stones, and scar tissue, so infections should be treated promptly.
Increasing water intake may also be beneficial. Don't forget to leave fresh water for your pets at all times. Running fountains also encourage many cats to drink more water, but some cats refuse to use these fountains all together.
Several diets can help reduce the risk of feline urethral obstruction in cats that are prone to this problem. Your veterinarian can tell you if your cat should be on a special diet to reduce the risk of feline urethral obstruction. Wet diets are recommended because they are higher in water, and therefore keep the urine more dilute.
Keeping your cat at a healthy weight is a final way to help prevent the chance of feline urethral obstruction. Though we don't quite understand the connection, overweight neutered male cats represent the majority of blocked pets.