A disgusting nuisance or a hairy hazard?

The occasion is special, the dinner, carefully planned, is cooked to perfection, the guests have been seated, the dishes are on the table, about to be uncovered. Then, into the room strolls the cat. Suddenly, it begins to make a hacking, coughing sound, and then, before the horrified eyes of your guests, opens its mouth and out slides a disgusting, tubular mass. Formerly robust appetites quickly diminish, children scream, women faint, and grown men go into shock. Itís called a hairball, but it looks like -- like something other than hair.

Okay, that may be an extreme example, but for people who have cats, hairballs are a part of life. Cats are naturally clean creatures who spend a lot of time grooming themselves. This dedication to cleanliness that we find so admirable also contributes to that uniquely feline by product - hairballs!

Cats use their tongue and teeth as a combination comb, brush, and wash cloth. The surface of a catís tongue is covered with backward pointing, raspy projections called papillae. This rough texture makes a perfect grooming tool, but it also allows hair to stick to the tongue and be swallowed.

Hair that has been swallowed usually goes through the digestive system and is passed, causing no problems. Sometimes the hair isnít passed, and collects in the stomach, forming a hard dense ball. When regurgitated, hairballs are nasty-looking, cigar shaped masses of hair and partially digested food.

Throwing up an occasional hairball is normal for cats, as long as it doesnít happen too frequently. All cats groom themselves and all cats shed, and while long haired cats may be more susceptible to the formation of hairballs, short haired cats are not immune. Some cats, such as those that are poorly nourished, ill, or stressed, will shed more than others. Cats that do not shed much may groom other cats as part of their social interaction, and ingest that hair.

Cutting down on shed hair is the easiest way to prevent hairballs. A high quality diet will promote a healthy coat and reduce heavy shedding. Regular grooming, combing, brushing, and stroking the cat with grooming gloves removes hair the cat might otherwise swallow.

If large amounts of fur accumulate in the stomach, the cat may be unable to excrete or vomit the mass. If it passes into the small intestine, it can cause an obstruction of the digestive tract. Hairballs are considered the leading cause of constipation in cats. Occasionally, large hairballs must be surgically removed.

The most common symptom of intestinal blockage is frequent vomiting. Other signs are loss of appetite, diarrhea or constipation, dry retching, and a swollen abdomen.

Traditional treatment for hairballs begins with feeding a cat a non-absorbable fatty product which tends to lube the hairball so it will pass more easily. The most commonly recommended product is petroleum jelly. Some cats like the taste and eat it, while most other can be induced to ingest it by placing it on a paw, and letting the cat groom it off. There are other products available from vets and pet stores which serve the same purpose and taste better.

In the case of cats that have frequent problems, a high fiber diet and fiber supplements are a better choice. The extra bulk will help carry the hairs naturally through the system. There are a number of products available, and your vet can recommend the right one for your cat.

Hairballs are an unpleasant by product of the catsí instinct to clean itself, but taking preventive steps can reduce or even prevent much of the problem.