First of all, the word Hairball is usually used interchangeably with the word furball, however for the purpose of this article I will use the word hairball. The medical terminology for a hairball is trichobezoar.
What is a Hairball?
A hairball is a mass of hair undigested hair mixed with digestive fluids and sometimes bile. When a cat regurgitates this hairball it is usually in a tube shape of various length and thickness in the color of the cats hair. Although hairballs cannot be prevented there are some steps you can take to reduce their occurrence and frequency. They may occur weekly or sporadically and there is usually nothing to be concerned about.
What causes this?
Cats being the constant groomers that they are, are predisposed to this problem because when a cat grooms itself he or she will ingest hair as part of the grooming process. The cats’ tongue is lined with fine projections called papillae which catch loose and dead hair, this is ingested and usually passes through their body, being eliminated in feces. Undigested hair may sit in the stomach and instead of passing through the bowel, eventually irritates the stomach enough, so that the cat attempts to regurgitate the hairball. Sometimes the cat will vomit food only, however the underlying cause may be a hairball. Some cats may eat grass to induce vomiting with the underlying issue being discomfort most probably caused by a hairball. As some cats are more pedantic in their grooming regime, they too will be more prone to hairballs. Long haired cats are more prone to hairballs due to the length of their hair, varieties such as Maine Coon and Persians may require extra grooming if it is a re-occurring problem.
What are the symptoms?
Usually your cat will exhibit the common symptoms which include gagging and retching followed by vomiting to try and regurgitate the hairball.
More serious symptoms may include ongoing vomiting, gagging or retching and the cat may be unable to produce a hairball. Absent or poor appetite, loss of weight, lack of energy, swollen abdomen and either constipation or diarrhea are other serious symptoms. These symptoms require an urgent visit to the veterinarian to exclude bowel obstruction, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. An obstruction will require surgery.
The best way of preventing Kitty from vomiting hairballs is to brush your cats’ hair daily if possible. This helps to dislodge loose hair and remove it from the coat rather than the cat doing this during a cleaning session. Bathing Kitty regularly may also assist if he or she allows it. If your cat is long haired, then professional grooming on a regular basis may help to control the amount of hair ingested. You may need to do extra seasonal grooming when your cat sheds its’ coat. If your cat is preoccupied with grooming then distracting them with a toy every once in a while might interrupt their routine and break boredom. Flea dermatitis or trauma may be the catalyst for excessive grooming, this can be controlled by treating the initial problem or using an elizabethan collar to prevent grooming to that particular area.
Cat food formulas
Pet food manufacturers produce a range of specifically formulated foods high in fibre to help control hairballs. Read the guidelines on the package to compare ingredients and introduce slowly. Start off with the smallest pack available or ask for a sample pack. The dietary fibre assists in bulking the stool and moving the hair through the digestive system. High fibre diets require extra water intake, so monitor kitty’s water intake and stool appearance, if he or she is not maintaining adequate hydration, stools are dry, kitty is constipated, or suffering from diarrhea, cease the food and return to usual diet.
Pet stores stock formulations that may assist in controlling hairballs. Petroleum based products work by pushing the hair through the digestive system, like a laxative and are given once or twice per week. Always read instructions and follow carefully.
Visit a pet store online or offline and look at the range of combs and brushes available. Metal combs seem to be more efficient at removing hair as the teeth are closer together. Making this a daily habit will reduce the amount of hair that the cat swallows.
Formulations exist which may assist in reducing the formation of hairballs, however exercise caution and follow instructions. Nux Vomica has also been recommended for its cleansing properties. I have read of people having success in using cooked pumpkin for its fibre content and vaseline for its laxative effect. A home cooked diet of meat and vegetables may be useful in increasing dietary fibre intake, if you dislike the idea of the commercially produced pet foods.
Ultimately the best way to reduce the amount of hair that your cat ingests is to remove some of that hair before your cat does. Daily brushing or combing will most definitely help achieve this. If your cat detests being combed or brushed then a petroleum based laxative once or twice weekly may be the best option. If you are concerned by your cat’s behavior, then a visit to your veterinarian for a check-up, however if your cat does exhibit any of the serious symptoms as previously mentioned, then visit your veterinarian immediately.