Welcome to the first instalment of the Nine Lives Mobile Vet blog about all things CAT.
I thought I’d kick off the inaugural post with a subject that has, most likely, bedevilled every cat lover at some point or other-HAIRBALLS!!
What prompted this subject was the sudden and unusual appearance of a formidable trichobezoar (try saying that 10 times fast) on my bedroom floor one recent, sunny day. Of my pair of moggies, I knew instantly who the culprit was. The offender could be none other than my lovely calico kitty, Tic. The colourful evidence was right there for all to see (if you wanted to examine the thing at any length-I didn’t). After cleaning up the mess I started wondering what had prompted Tic to produce a hairball the size of small chipolata sausage. Was she celebrating National Hairball Awareness Day which had just passed? (That’s a real thing by the way).
Normally, Tic never vomits hairballs. At first, I passed it off as a response to increased shedding. It is Spring after all. But then the veterinarian in me reminded me that she is entering her 8th year of life soon and that maybe, just maybe, there’s something more to this particular hairball than meets the eye.
I’m a vet entering my third decade of practice, and one of the subjects cat owners ask about eternally is hairballs. Your stories are legion and varied. You’ve picked them up off your favourite duvet thinking they were dead mice only to be horrified by the truth. (Which is worse, finding a dead mouse or a hairball in your bed? I leave it to you to decide). You’ve spent hours trying to scrub the vile-smelling stomach juice off your most expensive (and lightest-coloured) carpet. And you’ll never forget the cold squish of a furtively placed hairball as you stepped on it in the middle of the night on the way to the loo. They’ve even caused cats to go undergo surgery to have them removed. Hairballs are, in a word, gross!
Of course, it’s tempting to jump right into how to prevent the slimy, sausage-like things from occurring in the first place, and we will cover that in a bit, but a more important question is “Are hairballs in cats normal?”
The short answer is no. Dr Marjie Scherck DVM ABVP, who operated a feline-exclusive veterinary practice in Vancouver, Canada for 22 years; co-edits the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery; and is an international speaker, presented an informative clinical rounds session on the topic several years ago on Veterinary Information Network. Those rounds, which are available exclusively to veterinary professionals, disabused all of us of the notion that hairballs are a normal, if somewhat disgusting, part of being a cat owner.
Dr Scherck pointed out that cats are designed by default to swallow and pass the small amounts of hair they ingest from grooming. When hairballs arise, we need to look for the reason (hint-it isn’t because our cats are suffering from paraffin or petrolatum deficiency).
Your vet needs to think about underlying diseases ranging from gastrointestinal issues, to urinary tract problems, to behavioural issues stemming from lack of environmental enrichment. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some cats overgroom on specific areas of their bodies due to pain, parasites (think fleas and lice), or allergies. Others might be suffering from diseases that prevent the normal amount of hair cats ingest from passing through their intestinal tract; thus, causing a build-up of hair and its subsequent re-appearance as a hairball.
That’s all good and well for the vet I can hear you saying, but what about me? I own the cat and its hairballs and I only want 50 per cent of that duo. So how do I know when I should worry about them and what can I do in the meantime to prevent them?
Fair questions. First let’s discuss what you can do to prevent hairballs.
Are you grooming your cat frequently enough to prevent the build-up of extra hair and matts? Even short-haired cats can get matts, and the more matts they develop the more the cat tries to groom them off which leads to your cat eating extra hair. Sometimes you can remove those matts yourself with standard grooming tools, and sometimes you need to take your cat to a good groomer.
A particularly useful tool I’ve discovered for removing even very stubborn matts is called the Matt Breaker. It looks like something Freddie Kruger created in his garage, but it’s highly effective at removing matts of all kinds. I often (although evidently not often enough) use it on Tic, who has short, dense hair. I’ve also used it extensively in veterinary clinics, and I’ve been able to avoid the owner having to take their cat to the groomer for the full body shave the cat would otherwise require. Surprisingly, given the appearance of the Matt Breaker, I can’t recall a cat objecting to its use. It doesn’t scratch the skin, and it does a brilliant job of teasing out those pesky matts that are stuck right down onto your cat’s sensitive skin.
Another good grooming tool that does a nice job of removing dead undercoat is the Groom Zoom by Kong. This is a firm rubber grooming tool with long, flexible, finger-like projections. It massages while also ridding your cat of extra hair. My boy-cat, Tac, loves this tool, but his sister, Tic, the hairball-thrower-upper, finds it too ticklish. (But she loves the Matt Breaker’s metal blades-go figure).
And of course, no list of grooming tools would be complete without mentioning the Furminator. Clients started mentioning this product to me about 12 years ago, and since then the product range has increased, so you can find just what you need for your cat be it long-haired, short-haired, or somewhere-in-between-haired. You can usually find Matt Breakers, Zoom Grooms, and Furminators sold in larger pet stores and online.
A final clever trick that Dr Scherk mentioned was to lightly rub a paper towel dampened with water over your cat after a grooming session to pick up those annoying fly-away hairs the cat would otherwise lick up while trying to rearrange its coiffure.
It goes without saying, I hope, that under no circumstances should you go at your cat with scissors to try to remove clumps of hair. Cat skin is very distensible, and it’s easy to accidentally cut a big hole in your cat’s hide without even realizing it. And then your relaxing brushing session with your cat becomes a frantic visit to the vet, and that’s no fun for anyone.
OK, you say you’re brushing your cat daily and there’s not a stray wisp of hair to be seen, but your favourite feline is still bringing up hairballs. This next bit might seem self-evident, but have you tried more water? Getting it into your cat I mean, not throwing a bucket of it at them because you’re sick and tired of the hairball clean-up jobs. DO NOT THROW WATER AT THE CAT.
I know we all ensure there’s plenty of fresh water down for our cats all the time. But what constitutes fresh? Water that’s been sitting out for more than even 30 minutes starts to accumulate a thin layer of dust on its surface. It gets stale. It absorbs odours from the air around it. To a cat, an animal that relies about 70% on its sense of smell and 30% on taste to decide what to eat and drink, water that’s been out for more than a few minutes may smell and taste awful.
But wait, what’s water go to do with hairballs? Water is the intestinal tract’s natural lubricant (that and mucus but that’s a blog for another day). If a cat is dehydrated, even subclinically where its general health isn’t obviously affected, the body will take water from the intestinal tract for use in other areas. Now any hair your cat eats must go down a dry, sticky tube of guts and try to pass out the other end. It’s like when you were a kid and tried to go down a slide in your shorts and instead your legs stuck to the metal. You (and your cat’s hair) aren’t going anywhere.
Since we know the old adage really should have said “you can lead a cat to water but you can’t make it drink” (as if you can lead a cat anywhere either, puh-lease) we need to trick, entice, and otherwise bamboozle our cats into getting more fluid in their diets. I urge you to look at cat water fountains (a must for all cat-owning households), including moist food in their diets, and even adding low-salt chicken broth, tuna juice (water not oil please), or clam juice to their food. The soupier the better although you’ll need to play around with the amount of extra fluid your cat will tolerate in their food.
Finally, some people have advocated the use of higher fibre diets to improve the transit of hair downstream. While the complex fibres in some high fibre diets can assist with enhancing your cat’s gastrointestinal motility, this shouldn’t be relied upon to resolve the problem (not to mention how hard it is to convince a cat to tuck into a bowl of Wheetabix). In fact, if your cat does respond to a diet such as this by producing fewer hairballs, that suggests there is an underlying motility issue that may be more serious than just a dicky tummy. In which case, to badly misquote the Bard of Avon, “Get thee to a surgery,” (veterinary, of course).
As for the burning question of how do you know whether you should have a veterinarian examine your cat if it’s been vomiting hairballs, there is, like so many other things in life, no one simple answer. A cat who produces a hairball once or twice in its life and stops once you’ve initiated some basic grooming and water improvements will, probably, be fine.
However, if your cat seems generally unwell: isn’t eating or drinking normally, lacks energy, is coughing or retching, is vomiting or has diarrhoea, or refuses to interact with you in its normal fashion, then you should seek veterinary care as soon as possible. Even a cat who seems to be fine but is still producing hairballs more than 2-3 times a year would benefit from an examination. Be sure to mention to your vet that your kitty provides you with extra love in the form of those hairballs because we know they have other ways to show us how much they love us, and hairballs just aren’t it.