Mark your calendars everyone, and get your feline friends to do the same. On Friday April 25th we will be celebrating National Hair Ball Awareness Day! It falls each year on the final Friday of April, and is an important holiday to recognize. Hair balls can be a sign of illness in cats but they are all too often dismissed as being an annoying but “normal” gift from our furry companions. In fact all vomiting, whether it is of hairballs, food, or liquid/foam, needs to be taken seriously!
When should you worry?
As a general rule, hair balls (or vomiting) warrant a visit with your veterinarian if:
• It occurs more often than twice per month;
• It is becoming a more frequent occurrence;
• Your cat is losing weight.
What are hairballs?
Cats spend about 25% of their waking hours grooming and as a result, ingest a large amount of fur on a daily basis. In a healthy cat this fur passes through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and comes out undigested in the feces. Hair balls occur when the hair is vomited back up instead. They can form if:
1. The stomach is overwhelmed by hair and cannot pass it all into the small intestine. This can occur with overgrooming (e.g., from flea infestations, skin diseases, allergies, pain or anxiety) and also occurs in some healthy long-haired cats.
2. The motility of the GI tract is decreased (i.e. things are not being moved along the digestive tract as quickly and easily as they should be) and hair is collecting in the stomach. This can occur with chronic GI diseases such as food intolerance or allergy, inflammatory bowl disease, and lymphoma.
How serious are these chronic GI diseases? How are they diagnosed and treated?
Food intolerance or allergy can cause frequent vomiting and hair balls as well as other signs such as poor appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, and skin irritation. Left untreated, it can lead to serious weight loss. It can also make a cat feel quite unwell on a daily basis. Imagine how we would feel if we ate something everyday that made us vomit. Frequent vomiting is never normal, for us or for our cats. Food sensitivities can be addressed by working with your veterinarian to find an appropriate diet for your cat.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a group of chronic disorders that are characterized by an increase in inflammatory cells in the lining of the stomach and small intestine. This causes thickening of the walls, which can affect digestion and absorption of nutrients, as well as motility through the digestive tract. Clinical signs include vomiting, hair balls, weight loss, diarrhea, and even constipation. IBD can be diagnosed with the help of blood tests and diagnostic imaging (an x-ray or, even better, an ultrasound). The diagnosis is confirmed by obtaining biopsies of the stomach and small intestinal wall. These tiny biopsy samples are collected by performing an abdominal surgery or an endoscopic procedure. The prognosis is generally very good. The disease is treated with medications to reduce the inflammation, vitamin B12 injections, special diets and probiotics.
Lymphoma is a cancer that involves the lymphoid tissue of the small intestine. Clinical signs and diagnostic tests are the same as for IBD. The two diseases can only be definitively distinguished by biopsy. The prognosis is generally guarded, however many cats can successfully go into remission for months or years with appropriate treatment. Treatment is similar to that for IBD but with additional medication. It is thought that IBD can transform into GI lymphoma, especially if it is left untreated – another reason not to ignore the hair balls. It is very important to identify and start treating IBD as early as possible.
What about those special “hair ball diets” and products for hair ball prevention?
Hair ball diets that can be found in pet stores and grocery stores are generally high in soluble fibre, so they produce a softer stool to help carry hair through the GI tract. Similarly, products to help prevent hair balls are lubricants or stool softeners to facilitate the movement of hair through the digestive tract.
These products should be used with caution, as they may just be a “band-aid solution” for a serious underlying illness. We recommend that they not be used without first checking with your veterinarian to find out if your cat has a disease of the digestive system.
So on April 25, let’s all take a moment to square up to those nasty hair balls. For the sake of our beloved cats, let’s vow to get to the root of the problem so that we can help them feel healthy and happy.
[Dr. Alison Green]
For more information:
The Danger of Hairballs, Cornell Feline Health Center
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