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Straining to Eliminate: First Aid

Date Published: 12/31/1994
Date Reviewed/Revised: 04/06/2020

Straining is a frequent and sometimes exaggerated effort to have a bowel movement or to urinate.

It is often difficult to tell if the pet is having trouble urinating or defecating. Most owners think their pet is constipated when they first notice them straining. Straining produced by constipation may be identical to straining produced by a blocked urethra, diarrhea, or an inflamed colon. Therefore, treatment of an assumed cause of straining may be the opposite of what is actually needed.

In cats, straining is often indicative of urinary tract inflammation. Cats sometimes develop a condition called feline lower urinary tract disease in which the bladder becomes inflamed due to an unknown cause.  This can also sometimes be accompanied by tiny crystals in their urine. When there are too many crystals, they can plug the urethra (the tube that empties urine from the bladder) and prevent the bladder from emptying – this is a life-threatening emergency! The bladder becomes distended and the pet strains to relieve itself. Urethral obstructions are more common in male cats, while both males and females can be afflicted with urinary tract inflammation. Without help, this pet may be in critical condition within just a few hours. True urinary tract infections are actually quite rare in male cats. Dogs may also have obstructed urinary tracts due to stones, tumors or inflammation. Many other conditions can cause straining in cats and dogs: an enlarged prostate gland; irritated bowels; cancer of the bladder or bowel; intestinal or bladder polyps; and more. This is why the simple act of straining should not be assumed to have a simple solution.

In either species, an obstruction of the urinary tract is a potentially life-threatening emergency and warrants a trip to the veterinarian right away.

What to Do

  • Transport the pet to a veterinary facility for examination and diagnosis. 
  • If the pet seems systemically ill, is vomiting or is in pain, a visit to the emergency clinic is warranted.

What NOT to Do

  • Do not delay getting the pet examined. 
  • Do not put pressure on the abdomen as you lift or carry the pet.
  • Do not administer medications unless instructed to by a veterinarian.