Hairballs can be one of the more frustrating conditions in adult cats. Everyone who is fortunate enough to be allowed to share space with a cat has experienced the furry nastiness. Most often your cat will leave one of these presents in a spot where you are likely to step on it in the dark. Cat owners frequently ask why this happens and when it is abnormal.
When cats groom, a certain amount of hair will be ingested. If the hair is not digested properly, it will begin to accumulate in the stomach and the cat’s normal physiologic response will be to expel the material. If this happens too frequently it can be a symptom of an underlying disease condition.
A cat’s natural diet consists exclusively of small mammals. These animals are generally ingested whole, so the cat stomach is designed to deal with a wide range of material. So from a functional standpoint, a little bit of hair swallowed throughout the day should be easily digested. Hairballs, called trichobezoars, may accumulate either through excessive grooming or a problem with the normal digestive process.
If your cat is grooming excessively it could be a sign of stress or an underlying skin condition. You may not see your cat licking because he will go to great lengths to hide his symptoms. Bald patches may be found in regions that your cat can easily reach along the legs and underside.
If itchy skin is the primary problem, the bald patches may be along the top of the back in addition to the legs and belly. If you rub or scratch your cat in these areas it may trigger a reaction, indicating he may be itchy.
A number of conditions can cause itching and a visit to your veterinarian is needed to sort out the problem. If an allergic skin disease has been eliminated, environmental stress might be considered. The Indoor Pet Initiative from Ohio State University is a great source of information (www.indoorpet.osu.edu) for cat owners.
If the digestive process is affected you may see an increased number of hairballs as the primary symptom or it might be accompanied by weight loss, vomiting of food or bile, or diarrhea. As a rule of thumb if your cat brings up more than three hairballs a month it should be investigated. The most common causes are inflammatory bowel disease or a low-grade lymphoma of the digestive tract; however, any number of conditions can cause vomiting in cats and the path to a diagnosis might involve a number of steps.
For the occasional hairball, increase dietary fiber either through commercially available foods for hairball control or by adding a source. A good natural fiber is canned pumpkin. Cats will tolerate it reasonably well and a tablespoon on the food once a day is generally enough. There are hairball pastes such as Laxatone you can use as well, but caution is needed with regular administration since it can interfere with the absorption of some vitamins.
Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.