To listen to this week’s podcast, click at the foot of this page. Today’s topic was furballs in cats
What are furballs, hair balls, or trichobezoars
These are tubular or ovoid wads of hair that are sometimes regurgitated or vomited by cats. They originate by a cat grooming themselves, swallowing the hair, then bringing up an accumulated mass of hair, tangled up together. They do happen in humans too, by the way. I saw a photo of a baseball sized mass of fur that had to be surgically removed from a woman’s stomach because it was stuck.
The traditional approach to furballs
Traditionally, for furballs, vets would simply recommend a daily dose of a lubricant, such as a teaspoonful of liquid paraffin, or a proprietary product formulated to make it tasty for cats.
More recent views on furballs
More recently, vets have begun to look into this issue in more detail: arguably , it should never be normal for a cat to regurgitate fur like this, and it’s worth looking into other possible causes for this happening. Vets would now say that furballs signify disease, and although common, they are never “normal”.
It is certainly normal for cats to ingest small amounts of fur, but this should pass normally in faeces. So when a cat regularly regurgitates fur balls, vets would often look at two broad groups of possible causes
- Skin or coat problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
Skin or coat problems can cause cats to groom themselves more than usual, often because of itchiness caused by parasites (like fleas) or allergies. As a result of this excessive grooming, cats swallow more fur than usual, and this accumulates, causing the fur balls that are then regurgitated. So any cat with fur balls should be double -checked for any signs of excessive grooming (such as bald areas, reddened areas, signs of fleas etc). Excessive grooming can also be an obsessive behaviour caused by stress, so this may also have to be looked into. Sometimes more regular grooming by an owner to reduce the amount of fur swallowed can be part of the answer.
Gastrointestinal problems include a wide range of diseases that affect the way that the oesophagus, stomach and intestines move ingesta through the digestive tract. As an example, if any of these ares is irritated, the result can be regurgitation or vomiting, and if the cat happens to have swallowed fur during normal grooming, this will be noticed by the owner. In the past, the owner might have presumed that the vomiting had been caused by the fur, but we now know that this is rarely the case. So in such situations, it is always worth looking into the possibility of an underlying gastrointestinal problem. Problems include direct irritation (e.g. eating plant material), hernias (e.g. a ruptured diaphragm), allergies and sensitivities (e.g. Inflammatory Bowel Disease, which is common in older cats), and a wide range of metabolic diseases (liver, kidney disease). Investigations can be complex, including xrays, ultrasound, blood tests etc, and sometimes a cat may be put onto a special hypoallergenic diet as a trial to see if the regurgitation is linked to the food that they are eating.
Should an owner worry if their pet brings up a fur ball?
I am not saying that all cats that occasionally bring up fur balls should have major investigations, but rather that owners should be aware of the possibility of this type of underlying disease. The vet will normally take a detailed verbal history from the owner first, weigh the cat (checking for weight loss) and carry out a thorough physical clinical examination. Often there will be other clues of an underlying gastrointestinal issue, and it’s in these cases that the vet may suggest that an investigation is needed to find out precisely what’s going on.
And yes, a regular dose of palatable liquid paraffin is still sometimes a help with fur ball issues; it definitely does make the fur more slippery, and more likely to pass through the digestive tract unhindered.