By: Mel Adams, RVT
“Ask a Vet Tech” is an ongoing advice column written by our resident pet expert and registered vet technician, Mel Adams. You can find her online at: www.vettechmel.com.
My cat keeps throwing up hairballs at least once every month. What can I do to prevent these disgusting little surprises?
I can answer this because I, too have looked for the answer. Having had roommates whose cats had hairball issues and also clients who have asked me what to do about them, here is what I can tell you.
Hairball Anatomy -
The expulsion of a hairball from a cat is much like vomiting, so it is important to be able to tell the difference. Both involve making some sort of gross sound and heaving with those abdominal muscles, but the key difference is what comes out. A hairball is, obviously, made of hair, and generally tubular in shape. Vomit will just be a pile of partially or undigested food, hair, bile, etc. and if your cat goes through all the motions of this and does not bring anything up, that is called retching and should also be further investigated.
Why they get them -
Cats have little “spikes” on their tongue that act as a comb when they groom. These little papillae point to the back of their throat so that things move to the back of the mouth and down the oesophagus. Since cats are carnivores, they are designed to be able to eat and handle a certain amount of fur, both from their prey and their own from grooming. However, breeding and evolution of species has developed fuller, thicker and longer coats that produce much more fur and therefore more gets ingested. Since fur is not a digestible nutrient source, the stomach passes it through to the intestinal tract and it gets left behind in the litter box. When the stomach cannot clear away all the eaten fur, it gets irritated and up comes a hairball.
What to do about them-
There are a couple of things you can do to help decrease the frequency of hairballs.
Cats are meticulous bathers, so any help they can get to clean off excess fur will help reduce the amount of fur consumed. Daily brushing is recommended. In order to help the rest of the hair that is eaten pass through the stomach, a laxative product is in order. There are several on the market and in different flavours. The most simple solution is a large pea sized dollop of Vaseline once a week. Some cats absolutely love it and others will prefer a flavoured version. If Vaseline is not your feline’s cup of tea, then your veterinarian can recommend the product they have had the most success with. Cats with severe hairball troubles may require more frequent treatment that your veterinarian can advise upon.
How to prevent further hairballs -
Generally, the above solutions are enough to keep hairballs under control, however, some pet owners choose to change their cat to a hairball preventative diet. These diets are high in fibre and the theory is that this increased fibre will help bind the hair and stimulate the stomach to pass it through the intestinal tract. Adding a bit of pumpkin to your cat’s regular food can also accomplish this. If you decide to try this method of hairball control, it is important to do a slow diet transition in order for your cat’s digestive tract to adjust without getting diarrhea. These high fibre diets, however, do have some down sides. The added fibre adds bulk to the stool which may also cause gas and bloating.
Hairballs are generally not a life threatening problem, but are certainly gross and messy. With a little extra grooming and a laxative ‘treat’ each week, they are easily prevented.