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The Most Dangerous Urinary Tract Condition: Urinary Obstructions

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed two urinary tract conditions that pets may experience — urinary tract infections (UTIs) and feline idiopathic cystitis. (If you haven’t had time to read about either of these topics, just click the name of the condition and you’ll be directed to that blog post.) Today we’re going to dive into the final — and most concerning — topic of our urinary tract conversation: urinary obstructions. Let’s jump straight to the take-home message: Urinary obstructions are emergencies, and pet-owners should seek immediate veterinary care if they suspect their pet has an obstruction. It is important to recognize that a urinary obstruction is an urgent situation that can lead to death if not resolved. Keep reading to learn how to recognize if your pet has an obstruction and what treatment entails.

Causes of a Urinary Obstruction

A urinary obstruction is pretty straightforward — it is a blockage in the urinary tract, specifically within the urethra. Urine is emptied from the bladder into the urethra when the body is ready to dispose of the urine. An obstruction occurs when mucus, crystals, stones, or other components present in urine clump together to form a plug. This condition occurs primarily in male cats, and can also occur in male dogs. Male cats have a very small urethral opening, so even a small clump of particles can partially or completely block urine flow. Male cats most often become blocked from mucus plugs, whereas male dogs usually experience blockages due to bladder stones.

To date, we still don’t know exactly why an obstruction forms in the urinary tract, especially a mucus plug. Research has shown that various factors are associated with the development of an obstruction, including stress, poor water intake, diet, and infection.

Identifying an Obstruction

This condition may be hard to identify, especially if you have more than one cat in your home. Inflammation, urgency and straining are all symptoms of a blockage, but these signs also may be seen with a UTI or cystitis. The most efficient way to identify a urinary obstruction is to palpate (feel) your cat’s bladder. Normal bladders feel soft, like a water balloon, and they are usually very small. A cat with an obstruction will not be able to eliminate urine, and all of the urinary fluid builds up in the bladder. If your cat has an obstruction, the bladder will likely feel firm like a peach, and it will be about the same size as one.

Your veterinarian has experience palpating bladders in cats and dogs alike, but many pet owners find it difficult to confidently locate the bladder. For this reason, it is also important to keep an eye on the litter box to monitor for any decrease in urinary output.

Other symptoms of an obstruction include:
If you suspect a UTI or an obstruction, contact your vet immediately. Obstructions are very painful and dangerous. The purpose of producing urine is to eliminate metabolic waste products from the body. In the event of a urinary obstruction, these toxins will build up in a pet’s system and can cause serious harm. A blockage should be addressed within 24 hours of its development.

Assessing the Obstruction

The first thing your veterinarian will do is attempt to confirm the existence of an obstruction by palpating the bladder. If a blockage is present, your vet may apply gentle pressure to try to push out the obstruction and express urine. This often does not work, and a more aggressive treatment approach is then required.

The next step is to address dehydration and toxin accumulation in the body. Urinary toxins can cause nausea, vomiting (leading to dehydration) and loss of appetite. Toxin buildup is what is ultimately responsible for an animal’s death if the obstruction (full or partial) is not addressed.


The first step in treatment is to place a urinary catheter, which removes the obstruction. This procedure requires sedation because of how painful it can be. If the obstruction cannot be removed by catheterization, emergency surgery is required. In most cases, placing a urinary catheter is successful. Cats who undergo catheterization will often need to remain hospitalized for a few days, so that urinary production and hydration levels can be monitored. The length of hospitalization usually depends on how quickly the cat accesses treatment after becoming blocked, and how quickly the obstruction is removed.

Once the urinary obstruction is resolved and the cat is placed on fluid support, the kidneys do a remarkable job of eliminating toxin buildup and restoring balance to the body. A cat who is in recovery from an obstruction will usually produce high volumes of urine. If the patient doesn’t voluntarily drink enough fluid during this recovery phase, they will become dehydrated; this is why fluid therapy is so important. The catheter is removed after a couple of days, and hospital staff will continue to monitor the cat for obstruction recurrence.

Prevention of Subsequent Obstructions

Any cat who experiences a urinary obstruction is at risk for future obstructions, especially in the first week or two after hospital discharge. Dietary therapy is the key to preventing future obstructions. Cats or dogs that have experienced a urethral blockage are put on special diets, usually for life. These diets address the specific type of crystals that made up the plug or stone causing the obstruction.

Canned food is an important dietary factor for cats. The higher moisture content of canned food provides extra hydration and keeps the cat’s urine dilute. This helps to prevent crystal formation.
As you can see, there are several conditions that affect a pet’s urinary tract, and several of these are fairly common. Thankfully, all of these conditions can be easily resolved if pets receive prompt veterinary attention. Some pets experience recurring urinary tract issues; changes in diet and control of environmental stimuli are the key factors to preventing recurring episodes.

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