Did you know that a healthy cat should only develop hairballs once or twice a year? This is according to the executive director of The CATalyst Council, Dr. Jane Brunt. Although often looked upon as a normal occurrence, the constant development of hairballs in your cat could indicate serious health complications. So serious, in fact, that every April 26th, we celebrate National Hairball Awareness Day, a day designed to create awareness about these seemingly normal but life-threatening occurrences.
Hairballs, scientifically referred to as trichobezoars, are sausage-like or cylindrical wads of indigestible fur regurgitated by a cat. These hairballs can seriously affect the health and wellness of your cat by causing intestinal blockages. It is therefore very important to learn – or to relearn – all there is to know about hairballs and how to prevent them.
Causes Of Hairballs In Cats
Cats have immaculate looking shiny fur, and they work hard to keep it that way through self or allogrooming. Matter of fact, studies from the Science and Tech department at The Jakarta Post indicate that ¼ of a cat’s time is spent on grooming. Through this routine licking, they stimulate secretions that keep their coats shiny and waterproof. The saliva deposits also work to keep them cool during high temperatures.
Nevertheless, although grooming is a good thing, it has one drawback: it supports the formation of dangerous hairballs. Naturally, the tongues of cats have 300 backward facing hook-like structures called filiform papillae. While these barbs can be useful in removing parasites and debris from their coats, they also catch loose or shed fur.
This trapped fur is then swallowed by the cat. The majority of it passes through the digestive tract uneventfully and is excreted in the form of stool. Some of it, however, accumulates in the stomach forming a hairball which the cat regurgitates.
Normally, hairballs are one inch long, but they can be as long as 5 inches. If not vomited, hairballs could cause serious health complications like intestinal blockages. Natural grooming aside, parasitic infestations and allergic reactions to common household chemicals can indirectly cause hairballs. This is because they stimulate compulsive grooming that encompasses itching and licking, which increases the amount of fur the cat swallows, and consequently the formation of trichobezoars.
Cats Susceptible To The Development of Hairballs
Although all breeds of cats naturally do develop hairballs, some cats are more susceptible to the phenomenon than others. First, on this list are long haired cat breeds. These include Birmans, Turkish Angoras, Maine Coons, Cymrics, Ragdolls, Persians, Himalayans, Javanese, Balinese, Norwegian Forest, and Somali cats. The more hair a hat has, the more it is likely to ingest.
Second, on the list are cat breeds that shed the most. Chartreux cats, American Bobtail and Curl cats, Cymrics, Ragamuffins, Siberians, Ragdolls, Nebelungs, and Russian blue cats all fall in this category. Cats that shed a lot of fur and for long periods are highly likely to develop hairballs, as this loose hair will be collected by their paws and tongues. Lastly, older cats are more likely to get hairballs compared to kittens, as they grow better at grooming as they age.
Preventing The Occurrence Of Hairballs In Cats
It is important to note that you can not completely prevent hairballs, as a cat’s grooming is a natural phenomenon. You can, however, reduce the frequency with which they occur to the healthy one or two times a year. How so?
First up is regular and proper grooming. Purpose to brush your cat at least once every day if long-haired, and weekly if it has short hair. Not only will these help you bond with your furry friend, but it will also get rid of loose and dead fur that the cat would otherwise ingest. Keep the sessions under 10 minutes, preferably after meals or when the cat is relaxed. Start with a metal comb, gently untangling any knots, and getting rid of dirt from the head to the tail for short-haired breeds, and from the belly for long-haired ones. Next, use a rubber or bristle brush, brushing upwards, to remove loose hair. When brushing the tail, part it in the middle and work on one side first.
You can then fill a tub or sink with about 4 inches of warm water, and wash the cat, taking care to avoid wetting its eyes and ears. Once done, dry it and spread natural oils to its coat if you please. If you don’t want to wash it, you can wipe it down with fragrance and toxin free wet wipes after combing. This will get rid of any loose fur the brush might have missed. Don’t forget to clip its nails, as long nails which the cat will lick, can collect loose hair when it is scratching itself. If your cat is not a fan of the regular combing, you can take them to a professional groomer for a proper hair cut at least every 6 months.
Discourage Compulsive Self Or Allogrooming
If you notice your cat has a tendency to groom compulsively, you need to discourage the behavior. Take time to train it or hire a professional trainer to teach it to do other fun activities that will distract it from licking its coat. These new activities could include new toys for the cat to play with. If the cat licks its coat less, it swallows less fur, and this will minimize the chances of it getting a hairball.
Cats are carnivorous in nature. Their bodies, therefore, process proteins better than they do carbohydrates. Feeding cats with a lot of carbohydrates, which their bodies cannot efficiently digest, can lead to digestive issues. Combined with swallowed fur, the result can be lethal. It is therefore important to ensure your cat’s diet features high protein foods, zero grains, and very little carbohydrate content. Ensure your cat also drinks plenty of water. This water will aid in digestion, as well as the disbanding of hairballs and passing them along the digestive tract.
Include Fiber Rich Foods In Your Cat’s Diet
Your cat’s nutrition should primarily be from animal-based proteins since cats are carnivores, but at the end of the day, they still need a little fiber. Fiber is just as important to cats as it is to humans. It is one of the few foods that can help prevent hairball formation.
Once ingested, fiber binds up the fur in the cat’s stomach and encourages it to pass down the digestive tract so it can be excreted with the cat’s fecal matter. It also minimizes shedding by improving the health of the cat’s fur coat. You can naturally source fiber from fruits and vegetables like canned or cooked pumpkin, mashed carrots, strained prunes, and mashed peas. These should, however, be mixed with regular cat food and administered in very small doses – a teaspoon for two meals.
Encourage The Consumption Of Catnip And Cat Grass
Cat grass, which encompasses several types of grasses, is extremely useful to the prevention of hairball formation in two ways. Apart from providing nutrients unavailable in a carnivorous diet, cat grass contains fiber and laxatives which help with the passage of any fur down the digestive system.
Secondly, since carnivores lack enzymes necessary for the digestion of greens, they usually vomit it all back up, in the process regurgitating any forming hairballs. The consumption of catnip, on the other hand, is useful in reducing compulsive grooming and itching.
Once ingested, catnip acts as a laxative, making the cat relaxed and mellow, and minimizing the chances of it swallowing its fur. If you cannot access catnip, scientific studies by Sebastian Bol, a molecular biologist, found that the silver vine is an amazing alternative.
Symptoms That Indicate Your Cat Has Hairballs
The above steps will minimize the occurrence of hairballs, but even a healthy cat occasionally gets hairballs. The signs and symptoms of hairballs are usually very disturbing to witness. The cat coughs, gags, hacks, and retches in a bid to regurgitate the hairball.
It can be a scary experience for the owner, who usually finds themselves unable to help. Thankfully, it is a short process that is followed by the vomiting of the hairball. The tube-like mass of hair vomited is usually the color of the pet’s fur but in a slightly darker shade. It also has a bad but tolerable odor.
If the cat isn’t able to expel the hairball and its intestines become blocked, you will notice changes in its bowel movements. It will either be constipated or having fits of diarrhea. Additionally, the cat will have a distended belly due to swelling where the intestines have been blocked.
Ongoing vomiting, lack of appetite and weight loss are other indications your cat may have hairballs blocking its digestive tract. You will also notice lethargy, where the cat will be slow, uninterested in activities it usually is excited for, and sickish. Once you notice these signs, contact a veterinarian for assistance, or try administering some of the home remedies discussed below.
Once you notice symptoms that indicate your cat has a hairball blocking their digestive tract, you can try adding a teaspoon of oil or melted butter to their food. This will help lubricate the stomach walls and promote the expulsion of the hairball through stool. Alternatively, you can feed the cat with fish, which have naturally occurring oils that will do the work just as well. Also available on the market are cat treats and foods that have a specialized formula useful for getting rid of hairballs, not to mention hairball laxatives. If the situation is grave and none of these remedies are working, it may be necessary to resort to surgery.
Hairballs should be taken seriously, as they can be life-threatening, or may be an indication of an even bigger problem. Preventing their formation is one way you can ensure the health and wellness of your cat. You just have to learn the ropes on how to groom, feed and encourage correct behavior in your cat.