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The Hairballs of Spring

It's springtime here in the Rockies, and the changing season has inspired our cats to....shed! Yes, kitties all over the Northern Hemisphere are shedding their winter coats for lighter summer wear. (And in the fall, they'll do the reverse!)

But it's not like that old coat comes out easily for all cats. While short-haired cats don't usually develop too many mats, for their longer-haired cousins, that loose, dead hair is easily tangled with the new growth, and sets the stage for potentially traumatic grooming episodes.

Of course, cats, being fastidious, do their best to keep themselves tidy. They lick and groom to try to keep their fur in order. Their rough, barbed tongues can penetrate the outer layer of the coat, but the undercoat...not so much! Moreover, those barbs face backwards, and can feed a steady stream of loose hair into the cat's stomach.

Out in the wilds of Nature, that hair can make its exit one of two ways: it can pass through the digestive tract and out with the stool; or it can gather in the stomach for expulsion as--you got it--a hairball! (By the way, the correct medical term for a hairball is “trichobezoar,” pronounced trike-oh-bee-zohr — your vet will be impressed!).

While an occasional hairball is no cause for alarm, if your cat is vomiting up a hairball more than once or twice a month, it’s time to think about a plan of action. This will probably start with a trip to your veterinarian for a thorough exam. It’s important to make sure the problem is only hairballs and not something more serious. Problem signs include hearing the “Hairball Hack” — that awful coughing, retching sound — if no hairball is forthcoming; and any frequent vomiting. Coughing without expelling a hairball can signal feline asthma, and frequent or persistent vomiting of any kind should always be checked by your vet.

Prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure. Frequent combing is often all it takes to resolve the problem. Note: brushing won’t do. Brushes slide over the surface of the fur and don’t get all the dead undercoat hair out. Wire brushes are slightly better. For shorthaired cats, a fine-toothed flea comb is best. Longer hair may require a wider-toothed comb, or a comb with revolving teeth to prevent tearing out the hair.

Many hairball-plagued cats will try to self-medicate by eating grass or plants. The coarse plant fibers will irritate the stomach and cause the cat to vomit. Not all grass-loving cats have hairballs, however. You need to carefully observe your cat so you can accurately report the situation to your veterinarian.

Hairball treatments include (1) giving a lubricant to coat the hair and help it to exit through the "back door" and (2) adding fiber to the diet.

Lubricants

The lubricant for hairballs has long been petroleum jelly or mineral oil. It can be given plain, as in good old Vaseline, or in a commercial product, such as Laxatone, Petromalt, or Katalax. These come in malt, tuna, and liver flavors that appeal to many cats.

It sounds gross and potentially dangerous to feed a cat a petroleum product, but petroleum jelly’s molecules are too large to be digested or absorbed by the intestines; it passes through the cat unchanged, and is perfectly safe. I fed my cat, Spirit, plain Vaseline every day her whole life (and often several times a day) — she lived to be 20-1/2 years old, so I feel confident in saying it didn’t hurt her at all. In fact, she loved it, and would pester me mercilessly every time I got near the jar! Administer 1/2 teaspoon daily for a week or two, then once or twice a week for maintenance.

Hairball “treats” may contain mineral oil rather than petroleum jelly. It works on the same principle, but has a slightly more laxative effect — so don’t overdo it!

Edible oils, like olive, flaxseed, or fish oil, are often recommended. However, they will be broken down and absorbed in the small intestine, and thus may not finish their escort duty. (However, a cat with dull or dry fur may benefit from the essential fatty acids they contain.)

If your cat will not eat the jelly voluntarily, the usual trick is to smear a glob of it on a front paw. But be careful! A chunk of goop on a paw is liable to be flipped off in one quick and very efficient motion. I'm sure my first apartment probably still has Vaseline on the ceiling! It’s better to spread it on the leg below the elbow, or any place it’s easy for your cat to lick off.

Fiber

Fiber is relatively easy to add to the diet. There are a lot of hairball control cat foods and treats out there. The principle is that fiber helps hair pass through the gastrointestinal tract, out the other end, and into the litter box where it belongs. Many hairball diet foods contain powdered cellulose (also known as "sawdust") or other vegetable fibers like beet pulp.

Fiber is thought to bind the hair and stimulate the gut to help move it on through the digestive tract. You can also use canned pumpkin (up to 1 tbsp. twice a day, plain or mixed with wet food). Some cats like the taste, most don’t seem to mind it, and a few won’t have anything to do with it. Psyllium or rice bran may also be added to food. Don’t overdo the fiber, though: too big a dose at one time will “roto-rooter” the gut and cause diarrhea.

Most hairball diets on the market have 2-10 times the normal amount of fiber; and this is potentially irritating to the tender lining of the gastrointestinal tract. If you try one of these foods, be sure to make the switch gradually, and watch closely for too-loose or too-dry stools; either may result.

High fiber may have also have some serious drawbacks. Besides a potential for diarrhea/constipation, there are a number of other possible concerns:

  • Excessive fiber holds water in the gastrointestinal tract, which results in a more concentrated urine, which could increase the risk for urinary tract disease. Cats should be thirstier and drink more water on a higher fiber diet, but that doesn’t mean they will.
  • More fiber causes more stool and increased bulk, which may be undesirable to some people. No more hairy messes on the carpet, but a lot more poop in the litter box!
  • Even if the fiber increases intestinal mobility, it may not force the hair to pass out of the stomach, which is the real problem with hairballs — they get stuck in the stomach before they ever reach the intestines. No one has proven that fiber does anything to enhance stomach contractions or gastric emptying. Petroleum jelly products, on the other hand, do appear to get the hair out of the stomach most of the time.
  • Bloating, cramping or gas may occur as fiber is increased in the diet. This can usually be minimized with a more gradual switch of foods, but is something to keep in mind if the cat seems uncomfortable.
  • Since there can never be more than 100% of ingredients, an increase in fiber means a decrease in something else. And the ingredient lists of many hairball formulas are suspiciously similar to light/diet foods. Some light/diet foods have even more fiber than the hairball formulas (but less fat).
  • The hairball formula can be more expensive than maintenance diets of the same brand, even though fiber is a very inexpensive ingredient.

On the positive side, many hairball formulas promise improved coat condition and a decrease in excessive hair shedding. But so do a lot of maintenance diets. Most of the hairball foods’ packaging recommends regular grooming sessions in combination with their food to keep hairballs down (or move them on through) — which is one of the best ways to decrease hairballs anyway — you don’t need a special diet to accomplish that!

Many cat lovers who prepare homemade diets for their feline companions say that hairballs are much less of a problem. The cat actually has little, if any, physiological need for fiber, and it does make sense to feed what nature intended the cat to eat: meat, fat, a few organs, a little bit of vegetable matter — and, of course, hair!

Some cats just need a little energetic support to get their guts working at top form once again. The essence remedy “Happy Tummy” from Spirit Essences is designed to support and balance the entire gastrointestinal tract, and may be very helpful even for the veteran hairball hurler!