One of the most appealing features of cats is their silky soft fur-it’s irresistibly pettable. But it can be seriously unappealing when it ends up in a wet pile on the carpet! Nobody likes stepping on a cold, soggy trichobezoar (pronounced trike-oh-bee-zohr), more familiarly known as a hairball.
The carnivorous cat’s gut is designed to handle fur-the cat’s own, as well as the fur attached to prey animals. Loose or dead hair swallowed by the cat during grooming is supposed to pass through the digestive tract and be excreted in the stool. However, this mechanism is faulty in many cats. If too much hair collects in the stomach, it irritates the stomach lining and triggers vomiting.
While an occasional hairball is no cause for alarm, if it becomes more frequent, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. It’s important to make sure the problem is indeed hairballs, and not something more serious; for instance, a hacking cough that fails to expel a hairball may indicate feline asthma.
The main strategy for preventing hairballs is to keep the digestive system healthy and functioning at top efficiency.
- Eliminating dry food is crucial. Wet food (canned, raw, or homemade) provides more moisture to the digestive tract, enabling fur to keep moving.
- Feeding in meals, rather than leaving food out all the time, is more natural for the cat. It allows the digestive system to function the way it’s designed: eat a big meal, then rest and digest.
- Many people who feed their cat a raw meat diet or homemade food say that hairballs are much less of a problem Adding digestive enzymes and probiotics to the cat’s diet will improve digestive function overall.
The flip side is to deal with the fur itself. First, you need to remove dead hair before the cat swallows it. A comb works much better than a brush for this duty. Brushes slide over the surface of the fur and don’t get down to the undercoat, where mats and hairballs begin.
Improving the skin and coat will reduce shedding, which in turn reduces hairballs. Adding good-quality omega-3 fatty acids from both plant and animal sources will do the trick.
If your cat is already a champion hairball hurler, then direct action is needed.
Hairball treatments generally fall into two categories: increasing fiber in the diet, or giving a lubricant such as cod liver oil to slide the hair through and out. Avoid using petroleum jelly, commonly recommended for this problem. Petroleum products contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), linked to cancer.
Fiber is thought to bind hair and stimulate gut motility (the contractions that move food through the digestive tract). Canned pumpkin is a popular fiber source (sugarless-not pie filler).
Finely ground fiber sources, such as psyllium, flaxseeds, or chia seeds, may also be added to food. Flaxseeds and chia seeds also provide omega-3s, which are good for skin and coat health.
Increasing fiber usually works-at first-but excessive fiber can cause problems including diarrhea or constipation, and gastrointestinal tract irritation that leads to inflammation. Fiber also holds water in the GI tract and creates whole-body dehydration. The kidneys work harder to reclaim moisture and concentrate the urine, which may set the stage for crystals or stones.
Cod Liver Oil is harmless, and it works. It “greases the skids” all the way through the digestive system, and provides omega-3s. Purchase a cod liver product specifically formulated for pets and add about ½ tsp. to food, three times a week. Try it for a week or two, then once or twice a week for maintenance. Other oils, such as butter or olive oil, don’t work the same way; they are digested and absorbed before they even get out of the small intestine.
So get those hairballs under control-your cat will be healthier, and you’ll be able to safely walk barefoot once again!