Ask the vet
Esther Van Luipen
Yuk! You walk in the morning on your bare feet to the kitchen and suddenly you step on a snail. At least that’s what it looks and feels like. In fact it is a hairball.
Cats have little barbs on their tongue and, when they groom themselves, these little barbs catch the loose and dead hairs. The hair is then swallowed. When your cat is healthy it will pass through the stomach and the intestines and come out at the other side in its faeces.
When a cat throws up hairballs, more is going on than you realise. Nature designed cats as short-coated animals. People have bred long-haired varieties in the last few hundred years, and they are very popular. The digestive tract, however, is not designed for the amount of hair that long-haired cats produce, and that’s why they need a little bit of help.
It is a good idea to comb your long haired cat on a daily basis. Use a comb or brush with soft tips so they don’t scratch the tender skin of your cat. There is also food available that is especially designed for cats that have problems producing hairballs. This food contains more fibre then ordinary food, and this makes it easier for hair to pass through the digestive system, making sure the cat doesn’t get constipated.
Hairball paste is another remedy that may help your cat. This is a mild laxative that needs to be given on a regular basis. It is very tasty, and your cat might even beg for it, so it is easy to administer.
If your cat does not have long hair, there might be other reasons for hairballs, like over-grooming. This can happen in cats that are stressed or experiencing pain (licking to ‘make it feel better’). In these cases the source of stress or pain needs to be removed. A vet may be able to get to the bottom of this.
But hairballs also happen when a cat is not dealing with an excess of hair in its digestive tract. If the stomach and small intestines are not allowing the ingested hairs to move along normally, the cat will produce hairballs. In this case something else is wrong. There is an enormous array of diseases of the digestive tract that can cause this. From megaoesophagus to ileus, to inflammatory bowel disease or gastrointestinal neoplasia. Too much and too complicated to mention. A trip to the vet is definitely necessary when this is the case.
If your cat is not a long-haired specimen, finding and treating the initial problem instead of just treating the symptom (hairballs) is the best approach. In the long run, your cat and yourself will be happier, and that is all that matters.
Esther van Luipen is a veterinary surgeon in Claremorris Small Animal Practice. She can be contacted at 094 9373955 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.