National Hairball Awareness Day

Hairballs are the bane of many pet owners’ existences, but are you aware of what this unpleasant sounding and looking health problem actually involves?

Having previously owned cats and having had innumerable felines as patients over the years, I’m well familiar with this issue and the treatment options.  So, I’ve put together this guide for other pet owners to best understand and manage the hairball issue.

What are hairballs?

Hairballs truly are as the name describes; balls of hair.  Hairballs don’t have to be perfectly spherical like a ball.  They can be oblong, round and flat, or take another shape.
Technically, hairballs are called trichobezoar, but that term can be challenging to pronounce for owners and veterinarians alike.

What causes hairballs?

Hairballs occur when a pet ingests hair and it accumulates in the stomach.  Single or few hairs may pass through the stomach and intestines and exit the body as part of a bowel movement.  Many hairs can aggregate with each other, food, or other substances in the stomach to gradually become a hairball over days to months.

A hairball doesn’t even need to be exclusively composed of a pet’s own hair.  Human hair from the ground or the owner’s head or another household animal companion may serve as the source.

What are clinical signs of hairballs?

You’ll likely see your pet retching to vomit, which means there will be active abdominal contractions that ultimately lead to expulsion of stomach contents.

When the hairball is too large to pass out of the stomach into the small intestine, it lingers in the stomach and irritates the inner lining.  When enough irritation occurs, then up comes the hairball and often anything else within the stomach at the time.  The hairball often takes on a tubular shape, which forms after it’s expelled from the stomach through the tube-like esophagus connecting the stomach to the mouth.

You may not actually see your pet vomit a hairball.  Sometime owners return home to find the hairball in the floor, bed, laundry basket or other location.  Hairballs can appear like feces, so initially an owner may not be able to discern if what is being seen is a hairball or a bowel movement containing hair.

What species are affected by hairballs?

Hairballs are most commonly associated with cats, but any species that ingests hair can be affected.  Cats have an abrasive tongue that acts like a comb to facilitate self-grooming and hair removal.  Dogs lack the abrasive tongue of the cat, so canines are generally less likely to develop hairballs as compared to their feline counterparts.

Although it’s less common, humans can also suffer from hairballs.  People having habits of chewing their own or other species’ hair can be affected.  If you have the stomach for it, check out TLC’s My Strange Addiction episode called I Lick My Cat featuring a woman obsessed with tasting her cat’s hair.

Are there any significant health problems associated with hairballs?

Yes, significant health problems associated with hairballs can occur.  On a worst-case scenario, a hairball can cause an obstruction of the stomach or small intestine that requires surgical removal.

Because the hair causes inflammation of the digestive tract, other clinical signs of illness besides vomiting can include lethargy, decreased appetite, bowel movement changes (soft, liquid, blood, mucus, etc.), antisocial behavior, and others.

Can other health problems cause hairballs?

Besides being a consequence of routine grooming, hairballs can occur when a health condition occurs that causes a pet to lick or chew himself with increased frequency or effort, including:

  • Allergic skin disease– Seasonal and non-seasonal environmental or food allergies irritate the skin and prompt a pet to lick or chew in attempt to self soothe.
  • Skin infections– The presence of bacteria, yeast, or mites cause skin irritation and licking or chewing.
  • Hyperthyroidism– Overproduction of thyroid hormone is more common in cats and leads to increased hunger and ingestion of hair and other substances from the environment (pica).
  • Hypothyroidism– Underproduction of thyroid hormone more commonly affects dogs and causes immunosuppression, which can lead to skin infections and other health problems.
  • Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease)- like hyperthyroidism, overproduction of steroid hormones from the adrenal glands causes a pet to be hungrier and therefore more likely to exhibit pica. Additionally, pets affected by Hyperadrenocorticism become immunocompromised and develop secondary skin infections that prompt licking.
  • Behavior problems– Separation anxiety, lack of appropriate activity or environmental enrichment, and other behavior problems can cause a pet to spend more time licking himself or exhibiting pica.
  • Others

How are hairballs treated?

There are a variety of ways that hairballs are treated, yet I always suggest owners work collaboratively with their veterinarian in order to prevent the issue from happening in the first place.  An owner may believe a pet is suffering from a hairball but in actuality another ailment could be occurring. It’s best to address the issue with a veterinarian before starting any treatment.

Over-the-counter treatments are available for owners to purchase at veterinary hospitals, on-line, or at pet stores.  Many products are petroleum based and lubricate the hairball to facilitate its passage from the stomach into the small intestine.  Although such products are typically effective with only a few doses, I generally don’t recommend my patients consume petroleum on a long-term basis.

Fortunately, there are options containing plant-based enzymes that help dissolve hairballs to permit exit from the stomach and movement through the intestines.  Alternatively, adding insoluble fiber like canned pumpkin or psyllium husk binds to a hairball and helps it to pass through the digestive tract.

My preferred treatment for hairballs is a preventative approach.  Pets eating whole-food diets from The Honest Kitchen, which are naturally high in fruit and vegetable fiber, generally have fewer problems with hairballs.  The whole food and high-fiber components typically help keep the digestive tract functioning as optimally as possible.

With any concerns for your pet having hairballs, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian so a physical examination and recommended testing (blood, urine and fecal testing, x-rays, etc.) can be pursued and the most appropriate treatment can be prescribed.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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