Most of us are familiar with hairballs. The squishy feeling as you accidentally step on one in the middle of the night or the lovely sounds Kitty makes as she brings one up.
A hairball is technically known as a “trichobezoar”; “tricho” meaning hair, and “bezoar” being an accumulation of indigestible material forming a lump in the digestive tract. Bezoars used to be thought to have magical properties, including acting as antidotes to certain poisons.
How do hairballs form?
Cats are built to swallow fur. Rough one-way barbs on cats’ tongues collect loose fur when grooming, and prey fur is often consumed after hunting. The majority of this fur passes along the digestive tract; cats do not cough back up pellets, like owls. Sometimes though, the fur does not pass out of the stomach and gets matted into a felt-like substance. Eventually, depending on the size of the hairball, how rapidly it forms, and how sensitive the stomach is, the hairball comes back up, looking more like a sausage than a ball because of its passage through the long narrow food pipe, or esophagus.
Occasional hairballs are normal. However, many veterinarians feel that if the vomiting occurs more than once or twice a month, the excess hairballs may be associated with another internal problem. There are a number of possible underlying causes that may lead to vomiting; if your cat has frequent vomiting, contact your veterinarian for advice.
Rarely, a hairball may cause a blockage. This may occur anywhere along the digestive tract, and is a serious situation. Signs to watch for include continual vomiting, refusal to eat, and lethargy. If you have any concerns, it is important to contact your veterinarian promptly.
A recent study found four factors that may be associated with repeated hairball obstruction. These factors, and specific ways to address them, are:
Brush daily, then wipe with damp terry cloth, paper towel, or a rolling tape lint remover.
To help reduce excessive grooming, treat with cat-specific flea products, treat the household environment to reduce fleas or flea emergence; contact your veterinarian for recommended anti-itching medications.
Work with your veterinarian to administer medications and a diet that will help control inflammation.
Add fiber to the diet (pumpkin, psyllium) and add environmental enrichment.
Mineral oil-based products are commonly used in hairball prevention. Warning: Avoid using plain mineral oil; this unflavored product may accidentally be inhaled, as opposed to the cat-specific products which are tasty and therefore swallowed. Inhaled oil will result in pneumonia, and sometimes death. Plain petroleum jelly is also undesirable as an inexpensive alternative to commercial cat hairball preparations because the oil will bind oil soluble vitamins in the gut, so that deficiency of these particular vitamins may result. Cod-liver oil is also not recommended as it contains excess vitamin A and D.
Commercial hairball treats and diets help keep excess hair moving through the digestive tract and are an important preventive health care initiative for those thick coated breeds.
In summary, occasional hairballs may be normal. Certain underlying conditions have been associated with an increased risk of hairball blockage, which is a serious condition. There are a number of hairball preventatives available, but frequent vomiting may be a sign of an underlying disorder and should be addressed with your veterinarian.