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Intussusception is an uncommon but potentially life-threatening condition that can occur in cats of all ages. There are many different causes of this condition, several of which can be eliminated through good routine health practices.

Treatment options are almost exclusively surgical. Surgery is often successful if the condition is caught early.

What is intussusception?

Intussusception is the sliding or telescoping of the intestine within itself. It occurs primarily in the small intestine but may occasionally occur in the large intestine.

When the intestine slides within itself the blood supply to that section is greatly reduced and the tissue begins to swell and then die. The entire process can occur rapidly, which makes early detection and treatment essential.

Which animals are more prone to intussusceptions?

Kittens are the most likely ones to develop intussusception although it can occur in any age or species. There does not appear to be a specific breed predilection.

What causes intussusceptions?

There are several conditions that predispose a cat to developing an intussusception. Many of these conditions affect the motility or movement of the intestine. Intussusception is seen more commonly in kittens carrying large numbers of intestinal parasites such as worms.

Viral causes or bacterial gastroenteritis is another common cause. Tumours or recent abdominal surgery may also contribute to the development of this condition in older cats.

What are the symptoms of intussusception?

When the small intestine telescopes into itself, movement of intestinal contents is partially or completely blocked, therefore, the cat commonly vomits and very few faeces are passed.

Any faecal material that is passed is jelly-like, may be bloody, and not well formed. The appetite will be greatly depressed. The animal experiences severe abdominal pain, and eventually shock and then death.

How is intussusception diagnosed?

Diagnosis is usually tentatively made based on the symptoms and the palpation or feeling of a firm sausage-shaped mass in the abdomen. Diagnosis is confirmed with x-rays (usually using barium) and possibly an exploratory laparotomy or opening up the affected pet surgically may be required.

What are the risks associated with an intussusception?

An intussusception is serious and if left untreated: it will result in death. As the intestines telescope into one another, pressure restricts blood flow to the area.

Portions of the intestines therefore may actually die, and toxins and bacteria may be released into the rest of the body. Treatment involves surgically removing the affected intestine.

What can be done to prevent an intussusception?

Follow a good deworming and vaccination programme as well as preventing access to foreign bodies to reduce the incidence of intussusception.

Early recognition and treatment of other intestinal diseases can also help minimise the chance of an intussusception. Finally, if the owner recognises the symptoms of an intussusception early, and the animal receives prompt veterinary care, most animals can be successfully treated.