Hairballs in Cats: Treatment Options
Following on from our past article discussing hairballs in cats and their causes, this article focuses on how to deal with those pesky balls of fur once they have formed.
When we talk about treating hairballs, we are really talking about two separate things. Usually, we are referring to a cat with chronic hairballs that requires treatment to reduce their incidence. However, sometimes we are talking about a kitty with a gut impaction caused by a hairball, which will need more intensive treatment to move it along.
Cats that have become impacted because of a hairball may retch unproductively, go off their food and act lethargic. They may have repeated episodes of vomiting and can strain in their litter trays, without producing any faeces. Within days, these guys will go from happy-go-lucky critters to very poorly cats. An owner will be able to tell that there is something amiss and should know that a vet visit is in order without delay.
To diagnose an impaction, not only will the vet check the cat over (focusing on their abdominal palpation and checking for any areas of tenderness or tension) they will usually have to perform some diagnostic tests, such as taking an ultrasound or X-ray of the stomach and intestines. Hairballs do not show up well on X-rays or scans and it is not always easy to spot them straight away. While something like a needle that was swallowed will show up as a bright white object on an X-ray, the same is not true when it comes to a ball made of fur. Sometimes, vets will have to feed the cat a special dye known as ‘barium’ before taking an X-ray, in an attempt to make the impaction more obvious. Vets may also determine that the cat has an obstruction from analysing the pattern of gas on the X-rays but may not actually know that it is a hairball until they are performing the surgery and are able to see it in person. Things that can mimic hairballs can include hair ties and clumps of wool, two things that cats are well-known for eating.
If a cat has developed a hairball that is causing a gut impaction, they will need to be urgently treated. If the impaction is only partial or a vet is confident medical therapy could be successful, some lucky cats will get away with a few days of fluid therapy and laxatives, passing the hair naturally over time once it has been moistened and lubricated. However, in more severe cases when the hairball is completely lodged and not budging, vets may actually need to perform an ‘exploratory laparotomy’. This is a surgical procedure in which the cat’s abdomen is opened and the blockage is identified. The vet will then cut into the stomach or intestine (wherever the hairball is) to remove the offending clump. After removing it, the tissue will be sutured back up. There is a risk of leakage and infection afterwards, so this is certainly not a procedure that should be taken lightly. Cats may need to spend several days afterwards in hospital being monitored as they recover.
As they have had an abdominal surgery, it will take several weeks before they can go back to their normal routine and they will need to be rested while their tissues heal. As well as surgery, many will need additional medication such as pain relief, gut motility medication and stool-softeners, to help them on their road to recovery. Many will not want to eat for a day or two, so will need to be supported with intravenous fluid therapy and syringe feeding or tube feeding. Cats who have had blockages in the past can be more prone to repeat offences going forward. These guys need to be closely monitored and will benefit the most from life-long interventions which aim to reduce hairballs from building up.
Now let’s take a look at the issue that we see more often in our pet cats and which owners will constantly quiz vets about during a cat’s annual visit: Hairball vomits! Luckily, the vast majority of hairballs do not cause obstruction and tend to either pass out unnoticed with the poop or are vomited up surrounded by lots of slimy saliva. It is these pesky hairballs that cause owners the most contention and that many abhor the sight of.
Luckily, all is not lost and when a cat has been throwing up lots of hairballs, there are a few things that we can do to treat them.
Recently, pet food companies have launched several diets that claim to treat fur balls that are already present and to reduce the amount of fur balls being produced when fed long-term. They aid in the elimination of fur from the digestive tract and contain several sources of natural fibre which assist the gut and its movement. These foods will also contain a good amount of essential fatty acids to promote a healthy, shiny coat that is not prone to breaking. Owners can choose from wet and dry diets or may wish to mix feed. Some of the more popular diets on the market at the moment include ‘Royal Canin Hairball Care’ and ‘Purina One: Coat & Hairball’. It’s advised that the hairball diet that is chosen is the sole source of nutrition, as mixing it with a different type of feed could negate the benefits. Most hairball diets are appropriate for adult cats of all breeds, though owners should double check with their vet that it is an appropriate choice for their pet. It is critically important when introducing a new food to a cat that the diet swap is done gradually over 5-10 days. This changeover gives the gastrointestinal tract time to get used to the new food and will prevent stomach upsets.
Another important tool in our ‘Fur ball treating tool box’ is traditional ‘Hairball Paste’, a favourite of many. There are lots of different brands of pastes and gels on the market (such as ‘Katalax’ and ‘Laxapet’), each containing slightly different ingredients but all claiming to do the same thing. These products are fed every now and then in an attempt to help hairballs pass through the system naturally. Most owners will start the course when they hear that familiar retching noise or when they see a pile of undigested fur in the corner of the living room. These treatments contain mild lubricants such as paraffin oil and cod liver oil, so may result in diarrhoea if used too often. Most products are designed to be given for a maximum of two to three days in a row, rather than lifelong. Some will contain added ingredients such as vitamins and minerals, to encourage the growth of healthy fur.
Manufacturing companies work hard to make these hairball treatments palatable, meaning that most cats will be keen to lick them straight off your finger or out of their food bowl. Many will have a meaty or fishy taste, so cats are actually fooled into thinking that they are a treat. In fussy cats, the paste can be squirted onto their paw or cheek and they will automatically lick it off in an attempt to keep themselves clean; silly cats! As only a small amount is needed to be effective, this method can actually work quite well.
As with many things in life, when it comes to hairballs, prevention is better than cure. Rather than working hard to eliminate (or surgically remove!) hairballs that have already had a chance to form and create trouble, we should really be aiming to prevent them from building up in the first place.
Though many will assume that hairballs are an inevitable evil, there is actually quite a lot that can be done to make them a less common occurrence and to minimise the risks that they can pose. A dedicated owner who follows the fur ball reducing advice can help cats keep things under control, making for a happier cat and less nasty hairballs to find under the sofa or in your shoe! All of these handy hairball preventative interventions are discussed in detail in the last of our three Furball articles.