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Vet Notes : cats

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow


Trichobezoars (the medical term for hairballs) form in the cats' stomach after hair is ingested during the grooming process.  The majority of the hair ingested passes through the digestive tract and becomes a component of cat stool.  However, some residual hair remains and accumulates in the stomach.  When the mass of hair is vomited, it often takes on the cylindrical shape of the esophagus.

Hairballs are a natural and usually benign occurrence in cats.  Rarely, however, very large hairballs can lead to complications, particularly in long hair breed cats or cats that groom themselves excessively.  Hairballs can exit the stomach and uncommonly form a blockage or obstruction in the intestinal tract.  If their hair remains in the stomach and hairballs are not periodically vomited up, the stomach can become drastically distended and full with one large hairball.  This can lead to chronic vomiting and even malnutrition.  Sometimes, pet owners may misinterpret frequent vomiting as hairballs and as a result let another problem go undetected.  If vomiting (with or without hair) occurs regularly more than twice a week, a visit to the veterinarian is recommended.

Managing hairballs is a twofold process - prevention and treatment.  Prevention is best achieved by brushing cats frequently at home to remove loose hair before it is ingested.  Long hair breeds can be shaved to limit the amount of hair ingested.  For cats that are excessive groomers, distraction with toys and extra playtime may limit the amount of hair ingested.  Commercial hairball management diets are available.  These diets work by both improving a cat's coat, limiting the amount of hair shed, as well as by providing fiber to help promote passage of hair through the digestive tract.  Treatment of recurrent or chronic hairballs usually involves administration of a petroleum based laxative gel orally to cats to help the hairball pass.  As dehydration can cause the hairball to harden, supplemental fluids may be administered to help a cat vomit or pass a hairball.  Finally, severe and or obstructive hairballs may require endoscopic or surgical removal.

Luckily for our feline friends, hairballs tend to be a bigger nuisance for their owners than for themselves!


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