By: Cate Burnette

“Ack, ack, ack, aaaaaack!” …. and then plop.

All cat people recognize those sounds and know exactly what bit of nastiness is waiting to be cleaned up. A hairball, called a “trichobezoar” by veterinarians, is that damp wad of undigested hair, moistened by digestive fluids and bile, vomited by your cat when the hair in her gut doesn’t pass out the body in her feces.

Not really “ball-like” in shape, the cylindrical and elongated look of a hairball forms from the esophagus (the food tube) through which the hairball passes on its way out of your cat’s stomach.

Our job as pet parents is to ensure this consequence of a cat’s self-grooming doesn’t result in a dangerous health hazard.

Causes of Hairballs

Hairballs are the unpleasant product of your cat’s cleaning habits. As a cat grooms itself, the tiny backward slanting projectiles (called “papillae”) on the tongue grab onto any loose hairs and propel them down the throat and into the stomach. Most of the indigestible hair passes through the intestines and out of the body in feces; however, some of it remains in the stomach and accumulates into that wet clump of hairball that eventually ends up on your floor…or carpet…or bed…or shoe.

According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, young cats and kittens are less likely to develop hairballs than are their older counterparts, those more experienced groomers that spend a good portion of the day cleaning their coats. Ultra-fastidious cats and those long-haired breeds – Persians, Maine Coons, Ragdolls – are at a greater risk than short-haired cats. During the warmer seasons when cats really start shedding, hairball development is more frequent.

Dangers of Hairballs

The feline digestive system is designed to handle normal-sized hairballs. The danger lies when the proportions of the hairball become such that your cat is unable to physically get rid of it on her own.

Three key symptoms can distinguish a not-so-worrisome hairball from one that may require immediate medical attention. These are:

  1. Continued retching, vomiting or hacking that does not culminate with the expulsion of a hairball
  2. Frequent and intermittent diarrhea – or constipation
  3. Lack of appetite after repeated episodes of hairball vomiting

Any, or all 3, of these signs could mean that your cat’s throat, stomach or intestines may be blocked by a hairball obstruction. Additionally, the loss of appetite can lead to “fatty liver syndrome” (hepatic lipidosis), another potentially fatal disease. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, she needs to see your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Another problem with feline hairballs is that sometimes the constant retching appears similar to certain respiratory and/or cardiac issues, such as asthma or heart failure that requires your vet’s attention. When hairballs are kept to a minimum, your vet is more able to diagnose real lung and heart problems more quickly, should your cat develop them.

Reducing the Risk (Traditional Treatments and Remedies)

To minimize – and possibly prevent – the development of hairballs with all of the possible complications, pet parents can take the following precautions:

  • Remove loose hair by brushing or combing your cat’s hair on a daily basis. (Keeping cat hair off furniture is an added bonus for beginning this practice.)
  • If your cat is one of those who absolutely refuses your brushing, take her to your veterinarian or a reputable, trained groomer for a complete haircut as many times as needed, particularly during warm weather. This is especially effective in long-haired breeds.
  • Feed your cat a commercial hairball remedy. These oil-based pastes are flavored to make them palatable for your pet and will coat the swallowed hair, allowing it to more easily pass through your cat’s digestive system and out in feces.
  • Add bulk and moisture to your cat’s stools by increasing the amount of fiber in her diet. Supplement her food with raw, fresh vegetables or indoor cat grass to promote better elimination.
  • Optimize your cat’s intake of fresh, clean water by always providing free-choice water in the fashion your cat prefers, whether it’s through a re-circulated running water fountain or her favorite bowl.
  • Keep the floors of your home free of thread, paper clips, twist-wraps and other materials that, if ingested, can become dangerous hairball ingredients.

Holistic Hairball Remedies

Dr. Karen Becker of the Healthy Pets website recommends adding a good balance of Omega-3 fatty acids to your cat’s diet if she is prone to hairballs. In addition to improving your cat’s digestive health, Omega-3s are known to improve the immune system, aid in cardiac health by lowering cholesterol levels, reduce the inflammatory responses found in arthritis and Irritable Bowel Disease, and improve the condition of skin and fur.

Krill oil, found in most health food stores, is an extract prepared from a species of a tiny, Arctic shrimp-like animal normally ingested by whales. Dr. Becker suggests giving a healthy cat up to 14 pounds in weight 125mg of krill oil daily.

Other holistic hairball and digestive remedies include:

  • Pumpkin. A teaspoon of canned or freshly cooked mashed pumpkin (NOT the pie filling) added to your cat’s food daily increases dietary fiber and aids with diarrhea and/or constipation.
  • Psyllium seed husk powder. This fiber source is water-soluble and develops a mucous-like texture when wet, helping to push loose hair through the digestive tract and out the body. Mix the contents of one psyllium capsule to a tablespoon of water and add to your cat’s food. Psyllium can be found at your local health market.
  • Put a dab of non-petroleum jelly on your fingertip or the tip of your cat’s nose. Look for a brand with all natural ingredients, such as slippery elm, marshmallow or papaya. Your pet will lick the jelly and swallow it. With any luck it will coat the hairball, allowing it to be expelled more easily.

Remember, if your cat vomits frequently, stops eating, begins to lose weight or shows other signs of being in pain or ill, she needs to see your veterinarian as soon as possible. It may be an impassable hairball; those symptoms can also signal other very serious conditions.

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Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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