Cats love to groom themselves – sometimes even to the point of obsession. As the cat licks its fur, sometimes the little barbs on the cat’s tongue will pick up a stray strand or two. The hairs are then swallowed an they enter the cat’s digestive tract. Keratin, the main structural component of hair, is tough and insoluble making it impossible for cats to digest.
The majority of the time strands of hair swallowed by a cat will simply pass through the digestive system and be excreted in the cat’s feces. However, from time to time hairs get lodged in the the cat’s stomach or small intestine. These hairs can mix with other stomach contents and build up to create a Trichobezoar, more commonly known as a hairball.
As one would logically assume, cats that ingest more fur, are more prone to getting hairballs. This means that cats with long fur, cats that shed a lot, obsessive grooming habits, and cats that do a lot of social grooming get the most hairballs. You will probably notice that your cat has more hairballs during the times of year in which it sheds.
When Things Get Hairy
To remove the hairball, your cat will try to vomit the hairball out. This results in the all too familiar image of your cat retching, hacking, and making a mess on your brand new rug. It may even take a couple of attempts to finally dislodge the hairball. If this happens once every couple of weeks, it is not a serious medical problem. Hairballs are a normal part of being a cat. Greater frequency or inability to dislodge the hairball (unproductive vomiting) could be signs that something is wrong.
Rarely, hairballs become so stuck in the cat’s stomach or small intestine that the cat is unable to expel them. If this happens, the hairball may have to be removed surgically. Some symptoms that your cat is having trouble with a hairball are decreased appetite, constipation, lethargy, bloated abdomen, unproductive vomiting, and frequent vomiting of food or mucus. If your cat refuses to eat for more than a day or two or begins to vomit (or try to vomit) frequently it is time to call your veterinarian.
While you shouldn’t panic if you cat has a hairball, veterinarians are becoming increasingly concerned with hairballs because the symptoms have been found to be indicative of other serious medical problems. Having frequent hairballs can be a symptom of inflammatory bowel disease, kidney problems, or even cancer. These illnesses can cause the digestive tract to become inflamed and “trap” hair where it wouldn’t normally be trapped. A cat with food allergies may also have frequent hairballs. The irritation on the cat’s skin causes it to groom more and thus consume more hair. Sometimes cat owners mistake coughing for the hacking related to hairballs and the cat is really displaying symptoms of asthma.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Hairballs
Here are 6 ways to help prevent you cat from getting hairballs.
- A high fiber diet. Eating the right diet can help prevent a number of illness – just like in humans. Fiber is great for keeping the digestive system up and running the way it should be.
- More exercise. Keeping your cat moving will help its digestive system to keep things moving along.
- Daily brushing. Do a little of the grooming for your cat. Getting rid of some of the loose hairs prevents those hairs from ending up inside your cat. Don’t forget to use a clean cloth to gather up the loose fur after you’re done brushing. If your cat doesn’t care for being brushed, take it to a professional groomer who specializes in cats on a regular basis.
- Use foods that have a “hairball prevention” formula. These foods are formulated to work on your cat’s coat so that it does not shed as easily.
- Hairball remedies. There are several different petroleum based remedies on the market to help lubricate your cat’s digestive system. Make sure that you consult your veterinarian before choosing to use these products to make sure that hairballs are the real problem and not an underlying illness. Also, make sure that you carefully follow the instructions on the packages (or from your veterinarian).
- Distract grooming obsessed cats. If you have a cat that grooms obsessively, you may need to purchase new toys or find ways to keep your cat’s mind on something other than his fur. You might just enjoy the bonding time together.
Believe It or Not
Cats are not the only ones that get hairballs. Humans and other animals have been known to get them too. In humans it is most common among young girls who are compulsive hair pullers or have the compulsion to eat hair and other non-food items. It’s called Rapunzel syndrome when a human has a hairball that stretches into the bowel. There is a whole exhibit of human hairballs at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (click the link to see it).