By Jean Hofve, DVM
There’s nothing quite like the glorious feeling of stepping out of your warm bed onto a cold, squishy, slimy hairball! Perhaps we should feel flattered that our beloved feline companion has left a piece of herself as a special gift for us, but frankly, most of us would rather bond with our cats another way!
Nature gave cats lots of wonderful, soft fur. Normally, when kitty grooms and ingests the dead, loose hair, it passes through the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract and comes out in the stool. A carnivore’s gut is designed to handle fur, its own as well as the fur attached to prey animals. (If you’ve ever been hiking and come across “scat” from a coyote or fox, it’s evident that it is mostly fur.) However, generations of directed breeding have created cats with much longer coats than ever conceived of by natural selection. And some cats, even shorthairs, just seem to have tender tummies. When too much hair collects in the stomach rather than passing out through the gut, it irritates the stomach lining and whoops — there’s a hairball, on its way back out the wrong end of the cat! (By the way, the correct medical term for a hairball is “trichobezoar,” pronounced trike-oh-bee-zohr — your vet will be impressed!).
While an occasional hairball is no cause for alarm, if your cat is vomiting up a hairball more than once or twice a month, it’s time to think about a plan of action. This will probably start with a trip to your veterinarian for a thorough exam. It’s important to make sure the problem is only hairballs and not something more serious. Problem signs include hearing the “Hairball Hack” — that awful coughing sound cats make when trying to expel an offending ball of fur — if no hairball is forthcoming; and any frequent vomiting. Coughing without expelling a hairball can signal feline asthma, and frequent or persistent vomiting of any kind should always be checked by your vet.
From a holistic point of view, excessive trouble with hairballs indicates a basic systemic or energetic imbalance. A holistic veterinarian would consider the entire cat, including history, previous medical problems, diet, environment, social and family issues — even the cat’s personality. Hairballs would be just one symptom, one that will be weighed in totality with all the other information. For instance, a cat that follows the sunbeam all over the house, and sleeps next to the heater vent would receive different treatment than a cat that sits next to an open window in the dead of winter, even if they both displayed the “symptom” of frequent hairballs.
Prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure. Frequent combing is often all it takes to resolve the problem. But brushing won’t do. Brushes tend to slide over the surface of the fur and don’t get all the dead hair out. For shorthaired cats, a fine-toothed flea comb is best. Longer hair may require a wide-toothed comb, or one with revolving teeth to prevent tearing out the hair.
Many hairball-plagued cats will try to self-medicate by eating grass or plants. The coarse plant fibers will cause the cat to vomit, and hopefully, the irritating hair will come up as well. Not all grass-loving cats have hairballs, however. You need to carefully observe your cat so you can accurately report the situation to your veterinarian.
Hairball treatments generally fall into two categories: adding fiber to the diet, or giving a lubricant (usually a petroleum jelly product) to slide the hair through to the correct end of the cat for disposal. A third option, which might be used by a holistic vet, is homeopathy. A good remedy for foreign material in the stomach is Nux Vomica. A dose of Nux will often help the cat expel all the problematic material — but then you have to deal with a big fat hairball on the floor. In practice, I used Nux to oust some major league hairballs, as well as the occasional chicken bone or baby sock.
For many years, the treatment of choice for hairballs has been petroleum jelly. This can be given plain, as in good old Vaseline, or in a commercial product, such as Laxatone, Petromalt, or Katalax. These come in malt, tuna, and liver flavors that appeal to many cats. Petroleum jelly’s molecules are too large to be absorbed by the intestines; it passes through the cat unchanged, and is perfectly safe. I fed my cat, Spirit, plain Vaseline every day her whole life — she lived to be well over 20, so I feel confident in saying it didn’t hurt her at all. In fact, she loved it, and would pester me mercilessly for her bedtime dose! Administer daily for a week or two, then once or twice a week for maintenance. Hairball “treats” contain mineral oil rather than petroleum jelly. It works on the same principle, but has a slightly more laxative effect — don’t overdo them! Edible oils, like olive, flaxseed, or fish oil, will be absorbed by the intestines and thus may not finish their escort duty, although a cat with dull or dry fur would benefit from the fatty acids they contain.
If your cat is not a petroleum jelly connoisseur, the traditional method of administering it is to smear a glob of it on a front paw. But be careful! A chunk of goop on a paw is liable to be flipped off in one quick and very efficient motion. My first apartment probably still has Vaseline on the ceiling! It’s better to spread it on the leg below the elbow, or any place it’s easy for your cat to lick off. You can also put a dab into a syringe and force-feed it to your cat, but if it comes to this, you’re probably better off with a more kitty-friendly method of treatment.
Fiber is relatively easy to add to the diet. There are a lot of hairball control cat foods and treats out there. How do they work? The general idea is that the higher fiber content will help hair pass through the gastrointestinal tract, out the other end, and into the kitty litter box where it belongs. Many hairball diet foods contain powdered cellulose and other fibers like beet pulp, while hairball treats can contain mineral oil, a laxative that works much like petroleum jelly products in helping “slide” undigested hair through the intestines.
The “natural vegetable fiber” is commonly powdered cellulose. Fiber is thought to bind the hair and stimulate the gut to help move it on through the digestive tract. You can also use canned pumpkin (up to 1 tbsp. twice a day, plain or mixed with wet food). Some cats like the taste, most don’t seem to mind it, and a few won’t have anything to do with it. Psyllium or rice bran may also be added to food. Don’t overdo the fiber, though: too big a dose at one time will “roto-rooter” the gut and cause diarrhea. Most hairball diets on the market have 2-10 times the normal amount of fiber, which is potentially irritating to the tender lining of the gastrointestinal tract. If you try one of these foods, make the switch gradually, and be sure to watch closely for too-loose or too-dry stools; either may result.
However, high fiber may have some serious drawbacks down the road. Besides a potential for diarrhea/constipation, there are a number of other possible concerns:
- Excessive fiber holds water in the gastrointestinal tract, which results in a more concentrated urine, which could increase the risk for urinary tract disease. Cats should be thirstier and drink more water on a higher fiber diet, but that doesn’t mean they will.
- More fiber causes more stool and increased bulk, which may be undesirable to some people. No more hairy messes on the carpet, but a lot more stools in the litter box!
- Even if the fiber increases intestinal mobility, it may not force the hair to pass out of the stomach, which is the real problem with hairballs — they get stuck in the stomach, not the intestines. No one has proven that fiber does anything to enhance stomach contractions or gastric emptying. Petroleum jelly products, on the other hand, do appear to get the hair out of the stomach.
- Since there can never be more than 100% of ingredients, an increase in fiber means a decrease in something else. And the ingredient lists of many hairball formulas are suspiciously similar to light/diet foods. Some light/diet foods have even more fiber than the hairball formulas (but less fat).
- Bloating, cramping or gas may occur as fiber is increased in the diet. For kitties, this can usually be minimized with a gradual switch of foods, but is something to keep in mind if the cat seems uncomfortable.
- The hairball formula can be more expensive than maintenance diets of the same brand, even though fiber is a very inexpensive ingredient.
On the positive side, many hairball formulas promise improved coat condition and a decrease in excessive hair shedding. But so do a lot of maintenance diets. Most of the hairball foods’ packaging recommends regular grooming sessions in combination with their food to keep hairballs down (or move them on through) — which is one of the best ways to decrease hairballs anyway — you don’t need a special diet to accomplish that!
Many cat lovers who prepare homemade diets for their feline companions say that hairballs are much less of a problem. The cat actually has little, if any, physiological need for fiber, and it does make sense to feed what nature intended the cat to eat: meat, fat, a few organs, a little bit of vegetable matter — and, of course, hair!
Some cats just need a little energetic support to get their guts working at top form once again. The essence remedy “Happy Tummy” from Spirit Essences is designed to support and balance the entire gastrointestinal tract, and may be very helpful for the hairball hurler!
So don’t despair; with just a little effort, soon it will once again be safe to get out of bed!