Is there a cat owner out there that has not stepped on a squishy hairball? It seems that the popular opinion is that hair balls and cats go together. But is that true? could your cat’s “coughing up a hairball” actually be a serious medical condition? Yes indeed! I have many times investigated a supposed hairball problem and found deeper problems lurking.
Just what is a hairball?
Cats have hair. (Well most do, sphynx owners can disregard this paragraph) Cats groom. In the course of grooming therefore, cats eat hair. So it is totally a normal thing for a cat to have hair in it’s stomach and intestines. The normal churning and pulsing of the guts moves this hair along with the food down through to the litterbox. For most normal cats, you would never know that they are consuming vast quantities of hair. The problems come with excessive grooming, long haired cats and cats that have a motility disorder in the gastrointestinal system. In these situations, the hair can become impacted and rolled up so that is is impossible to pass down the tract. Then either it is vomited up or it can cause and obstruction in the small intestines. When vomited up, I have seen 4-6 inch long tightly coiled hairballs that certainly would cause problems.
What isn’t a hairball?
I often have people tell me that their cat is trying to cough up a hairball but never gets it up. When these cats are investigated, it turns out that they have a coughing problem, often associated with asthma and has nothing to do with hair! Other cat owners will inform me that their cat vomits a hairball every week, but when I probe it further, it turns out that the cat vomits once a week and sometimes it has a bit of hair in it. These cats have a vomiting problem and are just bringing up what happens to be in their stomach at the time. The presence of hair is normal. Coughing and vomiting are not. We need to find out exactly what your cat is doing and why.
What are the causes of hairballs?
Long haired cats (like my cat Pi) do seem to be prone to true hairballs. In nature, most cats have short hair that goes through a cycle of growth, latency (rest), shedding and regrowth. Typically this takes about 5-7 months for any particular hair. But indoor cats do not typically shed their hairs like a maple tree, rather they are like an evergreen tree, shedding a few hairs every day. For some long haired cats that do exhibit a seasonal shed pattern, they can have massive amounts of hair coming out in a short period of time. Even if their guts are working fine, the tangled mass of long hair can be problematic. For these cats, we do not need to look further for a reason. However, most of our cats spend a significant time of their lives indoor and do not exhibit this seasonal shedding. So when we have hair accumulating in these cats, we need to look at how their guts are working. If the churning action of the guts is hampered by a thickening of the lining, the hair is retained in the stomach and balled up. There are two primary causes of this thickening. An inflammatory process similar to a food allergy is probably the most common cause. However, in some cases, an early form of an infiltrative cancer could be the culprit.
What to do?
If you walk into a pet store and tell them that your cat has hairballs, inevitably you will have a special hairball diet recommended or even various laxative preparations to move the hairball along. The special diets are usually higher fiber diets that try to form bulk around the hairball thereby moving it through the tract. The laxatives, move things along by chemical means. Neither approach is appropriate for the root causes of the problem. If your cat only has an intermittent problem once or twice a year, this approach may be acceptable. But it your cat is an early stage of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and we mask the symptoms with higher fiber or laxatives, we miss the opportunity to get the inflammation under control before more damaging problems occur. There is a school of thought that suggests that untreated IBD can lead to the infiltrative cancer of the intestines. Early treatment of IBD with appropriate medications could theoretically prevent this conversion to cancer. The best solution is to have your cat thoroughly examined by a veterinarian who can, by examination and various blood tests, determine the best treatment plan for your cat.
Diagnosis is the Quest!
Regular vomiting is never a normal thing for cats. Even if it happens after binge eating of dry food, it is not normal. When dry food swells in the stomach, it should be accommodated by a corresponding stretching of the stomach lining. The lack of elasticity could be an indicator of this inflammatory process as well. As with most things of a healthcare nature, time and money spent on a diagnosis is well worth it. Trying various remedies wastes precious opportunities to prevent progression of diseases and to solve a problem in its early stages rather than just managing the symptoms. If your veterinarian is merely managing symptoms, it may be time for a second opinion. I had mentioned the possibility of asthma being missed. I had one patient that did indeed have asthma that had been overlooked for years so that by the time I saw the cat, the lungs and heart were so badly damaged that treatment was palliative only. Thankfully, between stopping all the unnecessary hairball treatments and treating the asthma correctly, his last few years were much more comfortable than the previous ones had been. If your cat has any repeated problem behaviours, do not delay, get him or her assessed today!