By Dr. Becker
There are few things more gag-inducing than encountering a gooey, furry hairball. In the dark. With your bare feet.
Only slightly less revolting is seeing the thing before you manage to step on it, or waking up to the horrible retching sounds your kitty makes as she tries to rid herself of the alien in her stomach. (It's fitting that the scientific name for hairballs is trichobezoars, or simply bezoars).
As you've probably noticed, hairballs aren't round. They are usually cylindrical wads of hair, debris from the cat's coat, undigested bits of food, and a bit of slime to bind the mess together.
Sometimes a hairball can closely resemble cat poop, but if you find it a good distance from the litter box, it's probably a hairball. The smell (or lack of it) is also a clue.
Hairballs Are Not Normal
While hairballs in housecats are very common, you may be surprised to learn they aren't a normal part of a feline's digestive process. Your cat's digestive tract is built to handle a certain amount of fur – both the fur she pulls off herself during grooming, as well as the hair attached to prey in the wild.
But indoor-only cats in particular develop hairballs due to hair length, shedding patterns (spring is often hairball season for cats whose coats thin out as the weather warms up), over-grooming (of themselves or other cats in the household), deficiencies in the diet, digestive dysfunction – or a combination of issues.
When one or more of these situations occurs, the hair your kitty has ingested forms a mass in her stomach that can't pass easily into the intestines. Her body knows it must rid itself of the foreign object, so ultimately, up it comes.
Causes of Hairballs
Most cases of hairballs are the result of one or more of the following: too much ingested hair, a moisture-deficient diet, or a problem in the GI tract.
Longhaired cats tend to have more hairball issues than kitties with shorter coats simply because they have more hair.
Skin conditions caused by allergies, infections or parasites can cause excessive shedding or over-grooming. Excessive grooming, also called psychogenic alopecia, is a compulsive disorder in cats that can result in tremendous quantities of ingested hair.
Cats on dry food diets aren't getting anywhere near the moisture their organs need to function efficiently. And unlike dogs, kitties don't make up the deficiency by drinking lots of water. A GI tract that is moisture-depleted is less able to transport a hairball than the digestive tract of a well-hydrated cat eating a species-appropriate diet.
A digestive tract compromised by an inflammatory condition like IBD, parasites, foreign objects, cancer, or another serious disorder may not be able to process even normal amounts of hair. A chronic hairball problem should be investigated by your veterinarian, since there could be an underlying disease requiring treatment.
Once in a great while 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.
Tips to Reduce or Eliminate Hairballs
- Feed a moisture-rich, balanced, species-appropriate diet.
- Add an omega-3 supplement. Sufficient omega-3 fatty acids in your cat's diet can help improve the condition of his skin and fur, as well as the ability of his digestive system to manage the hair and debris he swallows while grooming himself. Never use petroleum jelly or mineral oil for hairballs.
- Brush or comb your cat. 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 improve the condition of your pet's skin by removing debris and dead cells.
- Add a fiber source to your cat's meals. Mix the contents of a capsule of psyllium seed husk powder with a tablespoon of water and stir it into the food, add a pinch of coconut fiber to each meal, or try a teaspoon of 100 percent canned pumpkin or freshly cooked mashed pumpkin.
- Add a good quality animal-sourced digestive enzyme to your cat's diet.
- Put a dab of natural (petroleum free) hairball remedy on your fingertip or the tip of your cat's nose. Look for an all-natural product made with slippery elm, marshmallow or papaya. Your kitty will lick the jelly, swallow it, and it will coat the hairball, allowing it to pass more easily through the GI tract.