Urinary Blockage in Cats: A Real Emergency

Cat using litterbox
See your veterinarian immediately if your cat is having urinary problems.

A urinary blockage occurs when there is an obstruction in the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body. When this happens it is difficult or impossible for a cat to empty the bladder, making it a life-threatening emergency. If your cat is having trouble urinating (see list below), do not delay in having him or her checked by your veterinarian.

Why Blockages Occur

Although both male and female cats can develop urethral obstructions, the urethra is particularly narrow in male cats as it must pass through the penis and this makes male cats more prone to urinary blockage. Regardless of gender, the signs in both male and female affected cats are the same.

The material blocking the urethra can comprise several things, including:

  • Small bladder stones

  • Mucus

  • Inflammatory cells

  • Urinary crystals

  • Blood clots

  • Bacteria (usually a plug of bacteria combined with inflammatory cells and proteins)

Signs of Urinary Blockage

Cats that are partially or fully blocked often show some or all of the following signs:

  • Repeatedly straining to urinate in or around the litter box. This is often mistaken for constipation and straining to defecate.

  • Producing only small drops of urine or none at all

  • Crying or howling in or around the litter box or in general

  • Licking at the genitals or around the base of the tail

  • Hiding/lethargy

  • Vomiting and/or refusing to eat

  • Resenting being touched, especially around the abdomen

Cats can experience partial or complete urinary blockage and their signs can vary greatly. With a partial blockage, an affected cat may seem uncomfortable or in pain and spend excess time repeatedly going in and out of the litter box. An owner may notice urinary accidents around the house or find small puddles of urine (sometimes bloody) in the litter box or unusual places.

As the condition progresses to a full urinary blockage and the cat is unable to pass any urine, the signs become more intense and the cat may experience life-threatening complications. It is common for a blocked cat to vomit, lose its appetite and become extremely lethargic. If left untreated, the urinary blockage can lead to kidney failure and death within 24 to 48 hours.

If your cat is showing any of the above signs, see your veterinarian or go to the nearest emergency clinic immediately.

What to Expect at the Veterinary Visit

When gently pressing on your cat’s abdomen, your veterinarian may identify a large, firm and often painful bladder from which urine cannot be emptied manually. Once a urinary blockage is identified, emergency treatment and stabilization is required. Blood and urine tests will usually be recommended to help identify any underlying causes as well as complications associated with the blockage. Radiographs (X-rays) or ultrasound may be recommended to help identify urinary tract stones or other underlying issues.