Empty Litter Box

Let me get this said up front: A cat who’s having problems urinating is facing a serious health crisis. If he’s not seen by a veterinarian and treated as soon as possible, this cat can die swiftly as the toxins build up in his body. Simply put: This is not a “wait and see” problem.

Now, having gotten that off my chest, let me back up to how cats get to such a dangerous place, what you can do to prevent them from getting there and what happens if they do anyway.

Prevention Is Always Better

While nothing is guaranteed to prevent what we veterinarians call urethral obstruction, especially in male cats, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk.

Feed your cat properly. Talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s individualized nutritional needs, and get recommendations for an appropriate diet. As I always say, no matter where you shop or what you can pay, your veterinarian will be able to suggest a good product and how to feed it. Related, and just as important: Keep your pet at a healthy weight.

Encourage drinking. Many cats are chronically dehydrated, a condition that makes urinary tract problems more likely. Get a pet drinking fountain to encourage increased water intake.

Reduce stress. While some situations — new pets or people in the home, moving, etc. — are simply unavoidable, you can reduce some types of stress by changing your cat’s environment. For example, in multiple-cat households, minimize litter-box conflicts by having a box for every cat plus one extra, and make sure they’re placed in quiet areas that feel safe to your cats. Synthetic pheromones may also help lower your cat’s stress level, as may veterinarian-prescribed anti-anxiety medications.

Why Male Cats Are at Higher Risk

Male cats have what could charitably be called “a design flaw” in their urinary system. The tube that drains urine from the bladder is longer than in female cats and passes through the penis, which means that it is narrow and thus easily blocked by plugs or stones. Material that might pass through the urinary tract of a female cat may not make it through the longer, narrow urinary passage of a male.

For some cats, preventive care isn’t always sufficient, and they are more likely to be blocked. Surgery may be necessary to remove urinary tract stones that could lead to future blockages. When this happens, your veterinarian will typically anesthetize your cat and insert a catheter to allow the urine to flow again and to flush the material blocking the urethra. Your cat will likely need to remain hospitalized on IV fluids after this procedure, to keep things moving and to allow time and medication to reduce the swelling and pain.

The Surgical Fix

For some cats, preventive care, prompt attention to blockages and follow-up care will not be enough to prevent life-threatening blockages. For these cats, surgery to create a wider urethra may be the best option.

The procedure, which is known as a perineal urethrostomy, involves creating a new opening in a different location that provides a wider pathway for urine, which eliminates blockages. It’s delicate surgery; your veterinarian may refer you to a surgical specialist with more experience in handling the procedure. Follow-up care includes confining your cat to an area lined with shredded paper or paper pellet litter and having him wear an Elizabethan collar for a week or two while the incision heals. Your cat may be prescribed medications to prevent infection following the surgery, and regular rechecks over the next few months will ensure that the surgery is providing relief as it was intended.

While surgery — and surgery that alters the penis, no less — may seem like a difficult choice, it really shouldn’t be, from a medical standpoint. Redesigning the “plumbing” of a male cat with problems is a good long-term solution to a chronic, life-threatening problem. After your cat heals, his chances of having a long, pain-free life improve immensely.

And, really, what more could you want from a surgical procedure?