Cat Hairballs: information and thoughts

Feline vomiting a hairball?
Feline vomiting a hairball? Good pic. Photo: Catster.
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The stomach of cats is designed to accept hair. It has to be as a lot of hair is ingested during grooming. Sometimes too much for longhaired cats.

Medical – mainly a longhaired cat problem

Longhaired cats accumulate hair in the stomach as hairballs. They can be regurgitated rather than passing through the digestive tract. Frequent regurgitation probably needs looking into. Hairballs can cause a blockage on rare occasions.

If a cat gags and coughs as if in preparation for sicking up a hairball but nothing is produced, there may be a health issue that needs to be checked out. Hairballs can cause chronic gastritis Symptoms include: lethargy, poor coat and weight loss. There are other causes of course such as persistent eating of plant matter. Hairballs are a common cause of hard stools and possibly constipation, mainly in longhaired cats.

Evolution and domestication

I’d say that the domestication of the cat is a possible indirect cause of what can be a cat hairball problem. A provocative, yes, but probably or at least possibly true. It would certainly be true of the long-haired cats that have hair that is unnaturally long such as the extreme Persian or Ultra Persian. I don’t think wild cats have the problem of hairballs.

What I mean is this: nature wouldn’t allow the cat that has evolved over millions of years to suffer cat hairballs that cause problems. Cats in the wild probably get hairballs but they are passed through the gut normally. The natural course of events is that cats lick themselves (including the big, medium and small wild cats) to keep clean and more ( cat licking behaviour). Licking themselves is a natural event for all cats so it would very surprising if evolution created the situation whereby a natural and positive event (licking) caused ill-health and possible death. The evolutionally process wouldn’t have happened if it was dangerous to the cat.

Domestication of the cat is essentially an unnatural state of affairs. Breeding has resulted in longer hair in long-haired cats and it could be argued that the more passive lifestyle of domestic cats, particularly full-time indoor cats, can cause poor bowl movements that exacerbate the problem.

What they look like

Cat hairball
Cat hairball — Photo in public domain

The making of a cat hairball (only kidding – nice photo and nice cat). Photo by eric_malette (new window) and published under an Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic

Cat Hairball. An Ugly One! Photo by Ruth aka Kattaddorra
Cat Hairball. An Ugly One! Photo by Ruth aka Kattaddorra

Cat hairballs are tubular, brownish wads. Other material that has been swallowed can bind with the hair to form a bezoar. If it becomes too large it cannot pass out of the stomach and through the gut. This results in sessions of vomiting (that might contain hair) and symptoms that are similar to chronic gastritis including wheezing type cough. Hair caught in the colon can cause constipation.

Video

Note: This is a video from another website. Sometimes they are deleted at source which stops them working on this site. If that has happened, I apologise but I have no control over it.

Prevention – proactive steps

People searching for remedies for cat hairballs are taking reactive steps, which is understandable because it may be the first time it has happened to the cat. Once the problem has been dealt with (see below) the best action is preventative steps. And there is only one, really, and that is grooming. And the best grooming tool is probably the famous FURminator.  I am not promoting it but it is all over the internet!

Here is the device:

FURminator in use on a cat
FURminator in use on a cat. Photo: FURminator.

A FURminator user quote:

“I bought a FURminator ‘de-shedding tool’ today. The box on the right contains the results of a 20-minute combing session. The best thing is that Lightfoot tolerated being combed for 20 minutes. Her usual tolerance is somewhere between two minutes and zero.”

So that, then, is prevention of cat hairballs. What remedies for cat hairballs? There are several.

Remedies

Bezo-Pet for hairballs
Bezo-Pet for hairballs and other obstructions
  • An effective remedy according to many vets is white petroleum jelly. You use about 0.5 teaspoon once or twice a week. The jelly melts in the stomach and lubricates te hairball to ease it passage.
  • Commercial cat hairball preparations, which are petroleum-based laxatives. These are commonly available on the internet and at the pet store. They lubricate the hair allowing it pass through the gut. They are often flavoured. Cats can lick it off their paw. They may even lick it from your fingers. Alternatively, it can be squeezed into a cat’s mouth. This product can interfere with the adsorption of the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K. Laxotone includes extra vitamins for this reason. Try giving this product an hour before or after a meal.
  • A home remedy recommended by Drs Giffin and Carlson (Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook) is to apply a small amount of white petroleum jelly on the nose of your cat. It is licked off and into the stomach. The jelly lubricates the hairball allowing it to start moving from the stomach and through the gut. They recommend using it once or twice a week.
  • They also recommend mineral oil (see below), which can be added to the cat’s food once or twice a week at the rate of one teaspoon per five pounds of cat body weight. The average cat weighs about 8+ pounds. These products should not be given in large doses for long periods and a vet should be consulted if it doesn’t work. Mineral oil is liquid petroleum.
  • There is also specially prepared hairball cat food. One cat food is Royal Canin Intense Hairball 34. It contains psyllium (see below), which they say is rich in mucilage (see below) together with “micronized fibres” that help to stimulate intestinal transit. Others are: Science Diet Hairball Control Diet and Purina Pro Plan Hairball Management Formula.

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Mineral oil can be used on people (src: Wikipedia published under license):

Mineral oil is taken orally as a lubricative laxative, and is often prescribed to ease the pain of bowel movements for those who suffer from hemorrhoids and con stipation…

Psyllium

Psyllium is mainly used as a dietary fiber, which is not absorbed by the small intestine..

Mucilage is edible, but tastes rather bland. It is used in medicine for its demulcent properties…..a demulcent (derived from the Latin demulcere, “caress”) is an agent that forms a soothing film over a mucous membrane, relieving minor pain and inflammation of the membrane.

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