Hairballs

May 25, 2010

At Bees Ferry Veterinary Hospital, we get asked about hairballs in cats all the time, so after reviewing all of the articles I have written over the years for Moultrie News, I was surprised to learn that I have never written about this topic. I hope this answers some of your questions about hairballs.

Hairballs form when cats groom themselves with their rough tongues. These spiky tongues pull out old dull hair. They swallow this hair and it can collect in the throat, stomach or intestines. Often this hair is passed in the feces, which is more desirable than the vomiting or regurgitation of the hair onto your favorite piece of furniture. However undesirable this vomiting is, it is quite normal, as long as it is limited to just once or twice a week.

Problems arise when the hair gets stuck. When it sticks in the throat, you get that typical cough and gag followed by the regurgitation of yellow phlegm. If there isn’t hair in the fluid, then your cat may need help passing this hair. If the hair gets stuck closer to or in the stomach, then your cat may vomit food. This is because the hair is blocking the flow of food out of the stomach, so it builds up in there until it is vomited back up. Sometimes this vomit is in the shape of a tube or sausage. This means the hair is stuck in the esophagus and the food isn’t even getting to the stomach. If hair gets stuck further down in the intestines it can lead to uncomfortable obstructions and constipation.

There are many over-the-counter remedies for hair balls as well as special foods that contain extra fiber to help your cat pass hairballs in their feces. Using these remedies and foods as directed on their labels are good to help reduce the formation of hairballs in normal cats. Another thing that really helps is to brush your cat regularly. How often you need to do this depends on the length of your cat’s hair. Long haired cats need to be brushed out weekly with a wire brush. Short hair cats only need to be groomed with a rubber-toothed brush monthly, if at all.

If you suspect that your cat has a hairball stuck somewhere, he or she may need the help of your veterinarian. The first thing your vet will do is to make sure that the vomiting is truly from a hairball. If your cat is young and healthy in every other way, has a good appetite and shows no sign of intestinal parasites in a fecal sample, then it is a fair assumption. At this point simply making sure that you are using enough hairball remedy may be all you need. Most people don’t use anywhere near enough of the stuff. A cat needs to take in at least ½ tsp of the mineral oil based gels once a day to clear a stuck hairball. Measure it! It is more than you think. Your veterinarian can help you do this with a syringe. Once a hairball is cleared, ½ tsp once or twice a week will help prevent more hair from building back up.

If I suspect a stuck hairball, I will often give an injection of medication for nausea. This can help the cat hold down the hairball gel long enough for it to work. Another thing that helps is to give either intravenous or subcutaneous fluids. The extra fluids often help loosen the hairball so it can move through. If the above remedies don’t work, the your cat will need x-rays and a full work-up for other problems. Hairballs almost never have to be removed surgically.

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