Now there’s a delightful subject to read about over breakfast!
Also known as tricholiths, obstruction of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract by ingested hair is a common problem in cats and a less common problem in dogs. While it is rare in people, it does occur, usually when a nervous habit causes a person to twirl, pluck and eat his or her own hair.
Despite the vivid and hilarious depiction of a cat in a coughing spasm in Shrek 2, hairballs, being a gastrointestinal problem, do not result in coughing, but rather vomiting.
Hairballs can range in degree of interruption of flow of ingesta through the intestines. A hairball that is large, firm to hard, and immobile may require surgical removal if it causes complete obstruction and doesn’t respond to conservative treatment (see below).
Sometimes hair can “thatch” and obstruct the colon, simulating a constipation problem.
Most commonly, though, hair that cats take in when they groom themselves or their housemates simply clogs up and slows down the movement of digested food through the GI tract. There may be no actual “ball,” yet the hair is still causing a partial obstruction. Such cats may lose their appetites, vomit repeatedly (with or without hair in the vomitus), produce small amounts of stool and exhibit weight loss.
Prevention and Treatment of Hairballs
As with most medical conditions, prevention is far superior to treatment. Use of a hairball-preventing “laxative,” in the appropriate dosage, can prevent hairball problems in even the longest-haired cat. I put “laxative” in quotes because products such as CatLax aren’t actually laxatives, they are lubricants. They literally “grease” the GI contents, lubricating everything to move through smoothly.
“Appropriate dosage” may vary from one inch three times daily (CatLax comes out of the tube like toothpaste) to one inch weekly.
Take Mickey, for example. He came to me early this month with a complaint of vomiting almost every day, sometimes several times in a day. After determining that he was free of metabolic and infectious disease we began a regimen: one inch of CatLax daily for the first seven days (to thoroughly clear out any hair causing sluggish movement of ingesta) then one inch two to three times weekly for maintenance.
When Mickey came back to see me today, he was almost totally free of vomiting. His owner had followed our instructions perfectly. When she tried to reduce the frequency of CatLax to twice weekly some vomiting relapsed, so she has him on a maintenance dosage of one inch Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
As mentioned above, big and hard hairballs may require laparotomy and enterotomy to surgically remove the obstruction.
Cats suffering from what appears to be constipation may require sedation and enema(s).
You can see why prevention of hairballs is preferred by ten out of ten cats surveyed.
See you tomorrow, Dr. Randolph.