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Hairballs in cats
A hairball is exactly what it sounds like—a ball of hair or fur. If you’ve ever owned a cat, you will be familiar with this, especially if you’re the one in the family who ended up with the unpleasant task of cleaning it up!
Hairballs occur as a result of your cat grooming herself. She has tiny hook-like structures on her tongue that act as a brush by catching and removing loose and dead hair in her coat which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes through the gastrointestinal tract without any problems and is passed out in the stool. Sometimes the hair can accumulate in the stomach, forming into a hairball and blocking the outgoing part of the stomach. Food is unable to pass through and is vomited instead with the hairball. As the semi-digested food and hairball pass through the narrow tubular structure of the oesophagus on the way out, the resulting hairball appears thin and tube-like rather than round.
A cat’s digestive system is designed to process hair—its own as well as the hair and fur attached to the skin of prey animals—and as such, hairballs should not be a regular occurrence in a healthy cat. Hairballs are more common in long-haired breeds such as Persians and Maine Coons. Cats with behavioural problems such as obsessive compulsive disorders are also more likely to have hairballs because they swallow more fur due to excessive grooming. If you notice your cat grooming more than usual, visit your veterinarian to rule out physical issues such as allergies, skin diseases, parasites or infections; as well as behavioural issues such as anxiety, stress, frustration or boredom. Some breeds of long-haired cats may experience additional hair shedding at certain times of the year due to seasonal changes.
It is often distressing for owners to see and hear their cats vomiting a hairball. Common hairball symptoms include: hacking, gagging and retching followed by the vomiting of the hairball. Sometimes hairballs can get “stuck” in the digestive tract causing an impaction. The following symptoms can indicate that a hairball has caused a potentially life-threatening blockage: ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching or hacking without producing a hairball, lack of appetite, constipation or diarrhoea, lethargy, vomiting of undigested food and a swollen abdomen. Immediately contact your veterinarian if your cat is showing any of the above impaction symptoms.
Copyright © Kristel-Marie Ramnath 2017
The treatment and prevention of hairballs is generally focused on the following:
1. Additional grooming of the cat’s coat with specially designed brushes to remove as much loose and dead hair as possible. The more hair you remove through brushing, the less hair is available for your cat to swallow.
2. Hairball control commercial cat foods and treats which have added fibre to help bind the hair and stimulate the intestine to aid in eliminating hairballs. Cats are carnivores and their natural diet consists of a high protein level and low carbohydrate level. Grain-based foods tend to be higher in carbohydrates, leading to changes in the flora (bacteria) of the cat’s intestinal tract which may reduce the motility in the tract and contribute to the inability of the hair to pass normally through the intestinal tract. A grain-free, high-fibre diet may therefore be more appropriate for a cat who vomits frequently.
3. Petroleum-based laxatives and hairball remedies (which can be flavoured to make them palatable for the cat) help to lubricate and move the hairball through the intestine.
4. Water is important to keep your cat’s digestive system flushed and healthy, so ensure that your cat always has a fresh, clean supply available.
Recurrent hairballs should not be seen as normal in an otherwise healthy cat. It may indicate that there is an underlying problem that needs to be assessed and treated by your veterinarian.
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