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Constipation: how diet can help

Did you know that small hard poo isn’t healthy? Feeding a diet that creates small hard poo might seem ideal to you, but for your pet may indicate they are missing out on vital nutrients. When the diet is low in nutritional value or has an excessive amount of nutrients, the body holds onto the food for a very long period of time, trying to absorb as much nutrition from the deficient diet as possible – this might sound good in theory, but it actually cause cause digestive issues, malnutrition, weight loss and constipation. Which brings us to today’s topic – constipation!

Has your pet ever suffered from constipation? Maybe your cat has been diagnosed with megacolon? Diet can play a vital role is both treatment and prevention of this gastrointestinal issue.

So, what is constipation?

The term constipation is used to describe patients that pass stools infrequently or exhibit tenesmus (incomplete defecation, straining to defecate or feeling the need to continue to defecate once the bowel is empty) when passing stools. Another term you may have heard is obstipation – this is severe constipation that requires medical therapy in conjuction with dietary modification to fully treat. Going one step further from obstipation, is megacolon; this describes when obstipation becomes so severe the colon stretches as faecal material hardens and accumulates. Megacolon can only be officially diagnosed by way of an x-ray, to measure the size of the colon in comparison to the spine. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but they are very different conditions and they will have slightly different treatment plans.

Symptoms of constipation
– tenesmus
– abdominal pain
– weight loss
– inappetance
– vomiting
– depression/lethargy
– blood or mucus in stool
– intermittent episodes of diarrhea

Causes of constipation
– lack of moisture
– lack of fibre
– too much fibre
– a history of constipation
– dysbiosis
– poor digestion/excess
– some medications
– pelvic or spinal injuries, fractures or stenosis
– anal gland impaction (dogs)
– enlarged prostate (undesexed male dogs)
– intestinal blockages from eating non-food items (garbage, gravel, toys or bones)
– hormonal issues (hypothyroidism)

What is a healthy poo?

A healthy stool is firm but not hard, segmented and leaves little to no residue when it’s picked up. If you look at the Score 1, you can see the difference with this stool type compared to the ideal type (Score 2/7) where the faeces are small, hard and dry balls that require alot of effort for the pet to expel and may be expelled infrequently. Many pet owners think that this stool type is ideal, and indicates superior nutrition as the pet appears to be excreting a small amount of waste, leaving the impression that the diet is highly digestible – the truth is, diets that lack fibre are more likely to be the culprit and can go hand in hand with gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut). If material sit in the colon for too long, the beneficial bacteria dies off and the fermentation processes that feed the good bacteria may actually produce harmful by-products and gases that kill off good bacteria in the colon. The smooth muscle and nerves of the intestine can also become damaged by the constant pushing and pressure and then hyperextended if the faeces remain inside for too long, which can further predispose the pet to having issues with constipation long term.

Faeces that resemble a 2/7 are ideal, faeces resembling 1/7 indicate constipation (Source: Purina ProPlan)

How diet can help constipation

For constipation, there are a few things that can be modified in the diet to improve the faecal consistency and reduce symptoms. Water is a key nutrient in that using moist foods and encouraging drinking in both cats and dogs is beneficial to help soften the stool and replenish the water being lost; adding broths to dry food, having multiple water bowls, offering ice cubes and fresh fruits or vegetables as snacks can all help increase water intake. Adding sweet potato or pumpkin can also be helpful in increasing water content, while also adding fibre.

Which leads to our next most important nutrient – fibre. Majority of pets with constipation will improve when the fibre content of the diet is increased, or the diet is changed to a high fibre diet. This is because fibre intake increases faecal water content, colonic motility and the intestinal transit rate while also acting as a bulk-forming laxative. However, in severe obstipation or megacolon, adding fibre may not be the best idea as it can make the problem worse so always seek your vet’s recommendation before switching to a high fibre diet. If you aren’t prepared to change your pet’s diet right away, you can add a fibre supplement such as psyllium husk power (or Metamucil); it’s recommended you start with half a teaspoon mixed with abit of water and gradually increase the amount you add each day until you reach the desired effect.

It’s also a good idea to consider probiotics in these cases; a veterinary probiotic can help repopulate the gut with good bacteria which may have been starved due to a lack of prebiotic fibre in the diet. This also helps with the gut dysbiosis that can go hand in hand with constipation.

The Key Nutritional Factors and their target ranges for managing constipation are listed below:

Key Nutritional Factors for constipation and obstipation (Source: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition)

Ingredients in pet food designed to aid constipation

Carbohydrates and fibre often get blamed as the cause of constipation, or labelled as ‘fillers’ but in majority of cases a diet lacking in these ingredients is actually a trigger for constipation! Just because fibre and carbohydrates are not a nutritional ‘requirement’ for pets, this doesn’t mean they get no benefit from having them in the diet – in fact, fibre and carbohydrates are highly beneficial to gut health.

Soluble fibres are readily fermented by bacteria and produce short chain fatty acids that are beneficial to colonic health – they feed both the good bacteria and provide an energy source to the colonocytes (colonic cells). These fibres help the stool retain moisture as it moves through the intestine and prevents it drying out too much, keeping it lubricated so it can be passed without too much effort. Some examples of soluble fibres include psyllium husk, fruit pectins and guar gum.

Insoluble or mixed fibres such as beet pulp, rice, wheat or oat bran, pea fibre, soy fibre, soy hulls, cellulose, cereal grains, or peanut hulls have varying degrees of fermentability and solubility and may be referred to as mixed fibres or named individually if used for specific purposes. These fibres provide bulk, aswell as a source of prebiotics for the good bacteria in the gut. Adding bulk can be helpful in some cases of constipation where the stool is very small and difficult to pass, or when anal glands issues are occuring in conjuction with the constipation – the anal glands help provide some moisture into the stool aswell, so when these are blocked or the stool isn’t bulky enough to express them, this can trigger constipation.

Does your pet suffer from constipation? How do you relieve their discomfort? Have you considered changing their diet? Leave us a comment below!

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Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, Chapter 64: Constipation/Obstipation/Megacolon

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