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