Causes of Hairballs in Cats
Every day, cats lick and groom themselves religiously. In the process, they swallow a lot of hair, which mixes with food and ingested liquids and normally passes out in the stool. Sometimes, however, hair accumulates in the stomach. Anything that causes the stomach or intestines to become inflamed or changes the normal motility of digestive waste can contribute to abnormal retention of hair. As the hair clumps get bigger and become distinct objects, they irritate the stomach lining. Many hairballs are vomited or coughed up from the stomach. Occasionally, they cause a partial or total obstruction of some part of the cat’s digestive tract. This is a medical emergency.
Complications Associated with Hairballs
Hair build-up in the digestive tract can be worrisome for cat owners, especially when their cats vomit or cough up hairballs frequently. The presence of hair in a cat’s stool tends to make it dry, hard and difficult to pass. This increases the risk of intestinal obstruction. Fecal samples from chronically constipated cats often contain a significant amount of hair. Weak gut motility probably contributes to this problem. Left unattended, impacted clumps of dry fecal material and hair can stretch the wall of the colon and cause irreversible damage.
Managing Hairballs in Cats
Fortunately, there are a number of ways for owners to deal with hairballs. The easiest and least expensive way is to brush cats regularly, so that they don’t swallow so much loose hair during self-grooming. This is especially important for long-haired cats and those that live indoors, because they tend to shed year-round. Oral lubricants and laxatives are available to help facilitate hair and hairball movement down the digestive tract. Often, these are petroleum-based pastes that are flavored to make them palatable to picky eaters. Owners can squeeze the paste onto the top of their cat’s paws if it will lick it off, or they can squeeze it directly into the cat’s mouth. These products usually are given once or twice a week. Petroleum-based lubricants and laxatives can interfere with a cat’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Because of this, many of the newer preparations contain supplemental vitamins and are very effective if used regularly. Homemade remedies to manage hairballs include giving white petroleum jelly or mineral oil mixed with food. Another way to control hairballs is to add fiber to the cat’s diet; the additional bulk helps to move hairballs along. Supplemental fiber is available in kibble, tablets, treats and powders. Any hairball preventative should be discussed with the cat’s veterinarian before it is used.