April 26 is Hairball Awareness Day, and before you either yawn and click somewhere else or have a laugh at what seems like a good joke, read on a bit.
I remember reading in a Q&A in a cat care newsletter, “Why Do Cats Throw Up?” The answer began, “There are so many reasons cat throw up it’s pointless to try to figure it out,” and listed the main cause as “hairball”. Truly, 15 or 20 years ago, that was the prevailing opinion, and cleaning up after cats was and often still is the butt of many jokes, and hairballs are still not considered a reason for alarm.
When a hairball is not just a hairball
In truth, both vomiting and producing hairballs are reasons to be concerned. Vomiting should always be investigated by tracking what and when and how often and any changes in your cat’s eating or elimination habits, and reporting this to your veterinarian. An occasional hairball isn’t really a reason for concern, but regular production of them is often a clue to deeper issues, and often just vomiting up a hairball itself can be dangerous to a cat’s health with damage to the esophagus or mouth, a possibility of inhaling fluids into the lungs, choking, and in cats who have other respiratory or cardiac conditions it can even worsen the condition or lead to death.
Damage to teeth
My lovely long-haired Sally cat, top, produced hairballs nearly daily and vomited on a professional basis, always finding the spot from which she could spew on the greatest area and number of hard-to-clean objects. She hated being groomed or handled in any way, and developed huge knots on her sides and belly. I didn’t know anyone who could groom cats so I risked my life to clip away at them and brush the excess from her fur, but I know that no one really took Sally’s vomiting up hairballs very seriously including me. By her early teens her teeth were in such bad shape from the constant flow of stomach acid in her mouth that a few teeth fell out on their own, and even a cleaning couldn’t help the damage. She developed an infection in her sinuses that, through a subsequent dental cleaning, was traced to the loss of one of her canines and possibly stomach acid infiltrating her sinuses through the infected area. That condition continued through her last three years to a varying degree. She ultimately developed a bony cancer in her jaw near where a tooth had fallen out, and though it’s hard to say if the vomiting from hairballs was a part of it, it likely contributed to it with constant small infections in her mouth.
A cough isn’t always a hairball
A dry, hacking cough is often associated with a hairball, but this doesn’t mean that’s always what it is. My first cat, Bootsie, had a dry cough through most of her life at which everyone seemed to knowingly nod and say, “Hairballs,” and go on with their day, yet she rarely brought one up or seemed to have any issues at all with her fur. At about age 12 when the cough grew more persistent and prolonged, and occasionally her nose turned blue while she was coughing, even the vet nodded and said, “Probably hairballs,” advised Laxatone and gave me a prescription for prednisone if the coughing became to bad. It turned out Bootsie had had asthma all her life and this condition had turned to a condition similar to emphysema where here lung tissue had been damaged so badly her lungs had lost capacity, and a prolonged coughing spell turned into a severe asthmatic attack, a trip to the emergency hospital and an unfortunate euthanasia. We didn’t know that much about feline asthma at that time, but even today when we do understand feline asthma better I still hear people say, “That’s a hairball cough,” and not looking any further.
The importance of diet
Surely cats did not evolve being able to live while vomiting up hairballs on a regular basis. Sally was long-haired, and the difficulty of swallowing and passing her long fur was almost understandable, but at one time all my cats of all fur lengths and types tossed up hairballs. Sally and Bootsie both had tubes of hairball remedy and it didn’t help either one, and later special hairball-relief foods with extra fiber to keep the hairball for forming didn’t help the situation with other cats either.
Sweet little Peaches suffered from constipation and vomited at least once every day, sometimes producing a hairball and sometimes not. Chalk it up to age—she was 15 when she came to me and didn’t get any younger, but on an exam my veterinarian also noted that her intestines were very ropy and lumpy, “a mess” as she described them, indicative of irritable bowel syndrome. In working with her constipation and trying to heal her intestines, she also vomited less, gained weight and ate more easily.
The main difference between cats in the wild and our housecats is their diet. By “in the wild” I mean cats surviving on small prey eaten raw, not human leftovers. As I was working with Peaches I moved from what I’d felt was a premium diet but was not grain-free to one that was grain-free and all vomiting and hairballs slowly decreased. Continuing with the exploration of diets I moved step by step to where I now feed a raw diet and have not seen a hairball since some time last year. Occasionally one of them vomits but there’s nothing to it and it never happens a second time; I note that it happened and continue to observe.
And even shedding is so far reduced that my typical white or light-colored bedspread where five black cats sleep each night and often each day has very little cat fur stuck to it, even after a month when I typically change the spread because it’s usually so covered with hair…and other things.
So hairballs are really not a laughing matter, and using laxatives and fiber may help in the short run, but don’t help over time. Looking at your cat’s diet and changing to a species-appropriate diet is the best treatment. Read Some Startling New Thoughts on Cats and Hairballs on The Conscious Cat for more information on how diet can make a difference.
Of course, grooming your cat to remove the fur is a nice help for your cat as well, and often something that both many cats and cat owners enjoy. I don’t brush my cats as often as I should, though I don’t get much hair when I do, nor do I have a “FURminator”—which I’ve seen at work pulling piles of hair from friends’ cats fur—so we don’t have photos with a cat hair mustache like everyone else—click here to see a collection of such photos, and also see Zee & Zoey’s family , Catsparella and another gallery on Hauspanther.
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
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