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Are Hairballs an Unpleasant Fact of Life for Your Feline?

August 03, 2010 | 21,967 views
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mature catThere are a number of ways to temporarily remedy a hairball problem -- some more advisable than others -- but if a cat is suffering with frequent hairballs it's important to rule out serious underlying conditions as a possible cause for the digestive disturbance.

This is especially true if the hairballs are a new problem in a mature cat. Sudden GI issues in a middle-aged or senior kitty should always be thoroughly investigated.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

Hairballs, known in the scientific community as bezoars or trichobezoars (which certainly doesn't make them sound a bit more appealing), are a common complaint among people owned by cats.

Not only can the problem cause a nasty mess on floors and furniture, it often seems the effort required to regurgitate those gooey masses is very uncomfortable for the poor kitty.

How Do Hairballs Develop?

Hairballs have an obvious cause: kitties swallow a considerable amount of their own hair when they groom themselves. Some cats groom themselves and all the other cats in their household, making the amount of hair they consume enormous.

The rough surface of your cat's tongue is a perfect tool for pulling dead and excess fur from her coat during grooming. Some of that hair gets ingested. Hairballs aren't round; they are typically cylindrical masses of hair, debris from the cat's coat, and undigested bits of food.

Cat owners unfamiliar with hairballs might think their kitty has missed the litter box and pooped elsewhere in the house. As a general rule, a mess resembling poop found in a location away from the litter box is more than likely a hairball. The odor is also a tipoff, as hairballs don't smell like the other stuff.

A cat's digestive system is designed to handle a certain amount of fur, her own and from prey in the wild. But lots of kitties wind up with hairballs due to hair length, shedding patterns, dietary deficiencies, digestive challenges -- or a combination of issues.

Assuming your cat's hairball situation didn't come on suddenly and there are no other signs of illness, I would recommend the following approach to start:

  • Make necessary adjustments to his diet to ensure adequate moisture content
  • Add an omega-3 supplement
  • Brush your cat daily or at least several times a week

What's for Dinner?

If you're feeding your cat dry pet food, she's not getting anywhere near the moisture content her organs need to function well for a lifetime. Dry kibble is not biologically appropriate nutrition for felines, as it lacks two ingredients essential to your kitty's health: moisture and high quality protein.

Your kitty's digestive system is working harder than nature intended to process all that dry stuff, and don't expect her to drink extra water to compensate. Cats get most of the water their bodies need from food. A healthy dog drinks loads of water throughout the day. A healthy cat does not.

If your kitty's diet is low in moisture content, she's living in a state of chronic dehydration. Her GI tract, already moisture-depleted, is less able to transport a mass of swallowed fur and debris than the GI tract of a well-hydrated cat eating a species-appropriate diet.

If your cat has a hairball problem and is eating primarily kibble, the first thing I recommend you do is start transitioning to a biologically appropriate diet.

Healthy Fats = Healthy Cats

The most common nutritional deficiency I see in my practice is lack of essential fatty acids, and omega-3's in particular.

Cats (and dogs) have a nutritional requirement for healthy fats that must be supplied by the food they eat, because their bodies don't produce it – thus the essential nature of these healthy fats.

If your kitty has been eating a diet of commercial pet food, chances are he's been getting more omega-6 fats than he needs, and not enough omega-3's.

A good balance of fatty acids in your cat's diet can make a tremendous positive difference in his health, including:

  • Improving immune system response and blood clotting activity
  • Reducing inflammatory responses associated with arthritis and bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Decreasing triglyceride and blood cholesterol levels

Research is underway to determine how omega-3 fatty acids impact the development of certain types of pet cancer, as well as their potential to prevent or alleviate autoimmune disorders.

Omega-3 deficiencies in pets have been associated with stunted growth, eye problems, insufficient muscle development and immune system dysfunction.

Sufficient omega-3 fatty acids in your cat's diet can help to improve not only the condition of his skin and fur, but also the ability of his digestive system to manage the hair and debris he swallows while grooming himself.

For a cat up to 14 pounds and in overall good health, I recommend supplementing with 125 mg daily of krill oil. Krill oil is the optimum source of omega-3's for people and pets.

Kitty Hair Care

Even though most cats are meticulously clean and don't seem to need assistance in that department, if your kitty is dealing with hairballs, she could use a hand with her grooming.

Just a few minutes a day spent brushing or combing your cat to remove dead, loose hair from her coat will mean fewer hairs swallowed, and fewer hairballs for both of you to deal with. This is especially true if your kitty has long hair, and during shedding season when the weather begins to warm up.

As for what tool you should use to groom your cat -- there are as many opinions as there are varieties of pet brushes and combs on the market.

My recommendation is to use whatever tool your kitty will tolerate.

Some cats enjoy being brushed or combed. If your kitty is one of those, a comb – fine tooth for a short coat, wide tooth for long hair – is more efficient at removing loose fur. Since combing probably doesn't feel as good to your cat as brushing, you can start and finish grooming sessions with a brush to encourage him to continue to enjoy the experience.

Set a goal of four to five minutes a day with a long-haired cat and three to four times a week for a kitty with short hair. You should notice a very quick improvement in the hairball situation, and regular grooming will also help to improve the condition of your pet's skin by removing debris and dead cells.

Contrary to what many pet owners believe, kitties can benefit from regular baths just like their canine counterparts – especially cats with allergies and skin conditions. Check here for more information on how bathing can help improve your kitty's skin, coat and overall health.

More Hairball Help

If your cat's hairball problem doesn't resolve or at least dramatically improve with the changes outlined above, you can try one or more of the following remedies:

  • Psyllium seed husk powder. Also known simply as psyllium, this powder is made from portions of the seed of the plant Plantago ovate, a native Indian plant. This fiber source is water soluble and becomes mucilaginous when wet, helping to push built up hair along the GI tract. Add the contents of a capsule to a tablespoon of water, then mix in with your cat's food daily.
  • Pumpkin. Add a teaspoon of canned or freshly cooked mashed pumpkin to your kitty's food each day. Canned pumpkin (make sure it is 100 percent pumpkin) is a non-grain fiber source that can aid digestion.
  • Add a good quality animal-sourced digestive enzyme to your kitty's diet.
  • Put a dab of non-petroleum jelly on your fingertip or the tip of your cat's nose. Look for a brand with all natural ingredients, typically slippery elm, marshmallow or papaya. Kitty will lick the jelly, swallow it, and with any luck it will coat the hairball, allowing it to be expelled more easily.

I recommend you avoid grain-based fiber sources, as cats have no biological requirement for grain and the ideal situation for most cats is to eat only what is appropriate for the species.

I also don't recommend petroleum-based jellies marketed as hairball treatments. These products are widely used and can help with hairballs, but petroleum is a flammable mixture of hydrocarbons, not a nutrient. Too much of it can interfere with the absorption of vitamin A.

Mineral oil is another bad idea -- it can cause pneumonia if inhaled.

When the Problem is Serious

Rarely, a hairball can grow large enough to be life-threatening and require surgical removal.

If you're not finding hairballs but your cat is exhibiting all the usual hairball-related noises and behaviors, you should get her to a veterinarian as soon as possible. It's possible a hairball has grown too big to be regurgitated or passed through the GI tract.

It could also be a non-hairball related but serious condition like feline asthma.

If your cat vomits frequently, stops eating, loses weight or shows other symptoms of being ill or in pain, it's also time to get her to a vet. Again, it could be an impassable hairball, but those symptoms can also signal other serious conditions.

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