Hair Balls in Cats: A normal nuisance or a sign that something is wrong? By Dr. Laura Kiehlbauch
The following contains information from the article by Martha Cannon, BA VetMB, DSAM(Fel), RCVS Specialist in Feline Medicine, Oxford Cat Clinc, in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (2013) 15, 21-29
All cats groom, whether they be our pampered domestic housecats, or 600 pound tigers. BUT, hairballs are rare in zoo cats.
Adult housecats will groom an average of 3.6 hours per day, or approximately 25% of waking hours. Their barbed tongue removes loose hair, which is then swallowed.
If 25% of waking hours is the “normal” grooming time for cats, there are some cats who fall outside of this norm.
Cats may groom less if they suffer from pain or stiffness, such as arthritis, or if they are feeling “under the weather,” and like me when I’ve got the flu, they just don’t care how they look!
Cats may groom more than 3.6 hours per day if they suffer from parasites, allergies, illness, pain, or stress.
Normal groomers and undergroomers should not have hairballs, ever. Overgroomers MAY have hairballs.
So what happens to all that hair?
If your cat is grooming a normal (or sub-normal) amount, and their stomach and intestines are normal, then the hair passes through in their feces, and everyone is happy.
If your cat is overgrooming, and their stomach and intestines are normal, then usually the hair still passes through in their feces. The excess hair MAY cause irritation of the colon, termed hair-associated colitis. You may see some frank blood on the feces as the rough hair irritates the colon on the way out.
Other possible outcomes in the over-grooming cat with a normal gastro-intestinal tract, include the hair forming a blockage in the stomach or intestines, called a trichobezoar, or the cat MAY vomit a hairball.
No matter how much your cat grooms, if their stomach or intestines are not normal, he or she will likely vomit hairballs or have a trichobezoar.
This is because there is some disease process preventing the hair from moving along the gastro-intestinal tract. Two common inflictions that may do this are a food intolerance, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Inflammatory bowel disease is a serious condition in cats and can lead to intestinal lymphoma, a type of cancer, if not treated.
Treating the cat with hairballs
To successfully treat a cat who vomits hairballs, we must determine the cause of the over-grooming or gastrointestinal disease. An exam may determine the cause, if evidence of parasites is found, but many times further diagnostics are necessary.
Some diagnostics that may be suggested include:
- Advantage Multi trial for parasites not immediately evident on exam
- Food analysis for possible intolerances
- Wellness testing to look for underlying illness
- Abdominal ultrasound to look for thickening of the intestines
- Biopsies of the intestinal tract
If diagnostics do not lead us to an answer, or if your cat is continuing to vomit hairballs while we are beginning treatment, we may suggest prevention strategies:
- Reduce stress in your cat’s environment
- Daily grooming to remove loose hair, shaving when needed
- Hairball diets
- Contain increased amounts of insoluble fibre to improve gastric (stomach) emptying
- Frequent, small meals to encourage gastric emptying and intestinal motility
- Lubricants/oils to move hair through
**These should only be used after underlying factors have been considered and dealt with, otherwise we are only treating a symptom and not a disease**