Help for Hair Balls

More on PawNation: Cats, Grooming, Health

No matter how much you love your cat, you'll never love her hair balls. No need to belabor the distasteful details; suffice it to say that she doesn't enjoy getting rid of them any more than you enjoy cleaning them up. But while you might think that hair balls are an unfortunate reality of cat ownership, the truth is they're a normal health issue that you can minimize in your cat's life (to say nothing of your own).

Anatomy of a Hair Ball

It is true, to a certain extent: Hair balls (also called trichobezoars) are part of living with a cat. Blame it on your furry friend's anatomy. A hair ball starts when the distinctive barbs on your cat's rough tongue pick up fur during normal grooming.

RELATED: 3 Tips to Groom Your Pet at Home

The hair is then swallowed and, unlike food (which is digested by enzymes), it accumulates in your cat's stomach, where it often sticks together and forms a hair ball. The hair ball may eventually exit the cat's body in the feces, but it can also head in the other direction, leading to unpleasant hacking and gagging and even less pleasant deposits throughout the house-often, it seems, on carpets and favorite furniture. This whole process is normal for cats, although longhaired ones have more problems with hair balls than shorthaired types.

According to Arnold Plotnick , DVM, a cat expert and vice president of the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City, most cats eventually dislodge the hair ball with no problem. But hair balls can occasionally cause constipation if they pass through the intestine. In rare cases, the hair accumulation is excessive, and a cat cannot dislodge the hair ball. In these instances, surgery or endoscopy (insertion of a long, flexible endoscope through the mouth and into the stomach) is necessary to remove it.

RELATED: Total-Care Guide for All the Pets in Your Life

Happily, there are ways you can make this process easier for your feline friends. Here are our top tips for hair ball management.

1. Help out with the grooming.

Comb or brush your cat every day or at least every other day. Cats shed enormous amounts of hair daily, especially during the warmer months. Make grooming a routine; most cats love it. You will too, since whatever hair ends up in the brush will not get to the stomach or come
back to haunt you.

2. Lubricate internally

Give 1/4 teaspoon of petroleum jelly to your cat when he starts to hack. This will help him pass the hair down and through the intestine instead of up and on to the carpet. Flavored petrolatum (either malt or tuna) is readily available in pet supply stores or from veterinary offices. Dr. Plotnick advises owners to read the labels. Most of these products can be given either in a laxative dose (to help existing hair balls pass) or in a preventive dose. Most cats easily take either plain petrolatum or the flavored form. If a cat is particularly finicky, smearing some on a paw to elicit grooming usually does the trick. Also, there are now cat treats available with a lubricant mixed into the middle. Caution: Do not give your cat liquid mineral oil. There's a danger that he may accidentally aspirate some from the mouth into the lungs.

3. Feed a high-fiber diet

Fiber works the same way for cats as it does for humans, stimulating gastrointestinal motility. In your cat's case, it helps the hair pass through the digestive system instead of making a return trip. Many pet food companies now produce "hair ball diets" that are high in fiber. Although there is no scientific data available to prove their effectiveness in preventing hair balls, some owners claim that they help. There are also supplements available that contain psyllium, a top source of fiber. These can be found in powder form, in capsules, or in chewable treats. Note: Some hair ball remedies contain enzymes from pineapples or papaya that are supposed to break down the hair ball. But according to Dr. Plotnick, these don't really work.

4. Grow some kitty grass.

Both wheat and rye grass are delicious sources of fiber for cats. The natural laxative action of these grasses will help hair balls to pass. Buy a tub of grass (available at most pet supply stores), and grow a batch on your own windowsill.

RELATED: 3 Pet Symptoms to Never Ignore

Know When to Intervene

If your cat is vomiting more than once a week or showing other signs of illness such as loss of appetite or diarrhea, the issue may not be hair balls, but a real medical problem. Food intolerance and inflammatory bowel disease are common causes of vomiting in cats. Changes in diet combined with anti-inflammatory medication often bring about a cure. In older cats, hyperthyroidism is another common cause of vomiting. Some less common causes include viral infections and kidney or liver disease. A cat that vomits because of a hair ball should act normally at all other times, so if you suspect that your cat has more than just a routine hair ball, get her to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Checking frequency is also a good first step for determining whether your cat's cough is due to hair balls or a breathing problem. If her breathing and behavior seem normal after producing a hair ball, she's probably all right.

But if wheezing or coughing continues, she may have asthma or another respiratory problem.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Hair balls are more common in cats that groom themselves excessively. If your cat is grooming himself so much that he's causing bald spots, he may have either a skin or a behavioral problem. A common cause of overgrooming is itchiness due to fleas, allergies, or infections. Stress can also cause a cat to overgroom. Cats like routine, and stress can be triggered by the birth of a baby, the introduction of a new cat or dog, or other major changes in a cat's life. The hair loss usually occurs on the belly and the back of the cat's thighs.

If you suspect that your cat is overgrooming and getting more frequent hair balls, see your veterinarian as soon as possible to determine the cause.

-- Amy Marder

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