If you have a cat, you’re probably very familiar with hairballs. I think I’ve cleaned 3 up off the floor just this week. Yuck. My cat has miliary dermatitis, an allergic skin condition in cats where they break out in tiny scabs. The scabs are small and resemble millet seeds, hence the name. Miliary dermatitis usually causes a lot of itching and therefore extra grooming by the cat which results in more swallowed hair, resulting in the formation of hairballs, called trichobezoars.
Cats swallow a lot of hair just in the normal grooming process. Small amounts of hair are either passed out in the stool or vomited up by the cat. Hair can’t be digested and so it tends to accumulate in the stomach where it sticks together and mixes with undigested food, until it forms a clump or a ball. Cats with hairballs will usually cough, retch or gag when trying to vomit up the hairball. Sometimes they are successful, and sometimes the hairballs are so large that they require intervention by your veterinarian. I have seen a few cats who required surgery to have their very large hairballs removed from their stomachs. Occasionally hairballs can cause obstructions in the G.I. tract which is a life threatening emergency.
Despite the name, coughed up hairballs are usually not round, but cylindrical or cigar-shaped in appearance, since they assume the shape of the esophagus as they are “brought up”. They are often mistaken for feces, but on closer examination (if you are curious or daring I should say) you will find hair.
By grooming your cat regularly (brushing and combing) you can remove a lot of the loose hair and help prevent the formation of hairballs. Some cats, believe it or not, even like to be vacuumed! You can also give a dab of petroleum jelly or mineral oil to help the hair slide on through the digestive tract. Many cats actually like the taste of vaseline and will lick it right from your hand. Mineral oil should ALWAYS be given in canned food since it has no taste or odor, and can therefore be inhaled into the lungs if given plain. I give 1-2 teaspoons mixed in canned cat food for 3-5 days. I also like Laxatone, which is just one of many commercial laxative medications for hairballs that are flavored to taste good and have added vitamins. Using mineral oil and petroleum jelly can block the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) so should not be used long term. These products help to lubricate the intestinal tract to help the hair and feces pass more easily.
There are also commercial diets and treats for cats designed to prevent hairballs. A high fiber diet is beneficial to help push the hair through the digestive tract. Some people give canned pumpkin to their cat for this purpose. Most cats seem to like the taste of pumpkin (yeah, who would have thought?). I have tried giving it to my cat on several occasions (both plain and mixed in with his food) and he just doesn’t like it and won’t eat it. I have also heard baby food squash works well although I have not personally tried it (I figure if my cat won’t eat the canned pumpkin, he probably won’t eat baby food squash either). But I have witnessed many cats eating pumpkin and surprisingly they seem to like it.
Though hairballs are a common occurrence in cats, especially long-haired cats, they can be very dangerous and miserable for your cat. They can cause intestinal obstructions. Signs to look for if your cat is in trouble with hairballs is:
- retching, gagging, coughing, hacking, vomiting (you get the picture) but not bringing up anything
- lethargy or depression
- loss of appetite
- frequent coughing up of hairballs
Hairballs don’t have to be a source of misery for your cat. As in most things, prevention is the key.