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Animal Health

Hairballs Are More Than A Cat Nuisance

By Bonnie Coblentz

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Dirty litter boxes and hairballs probably top most cat owners' lists as the most distasteful parts of having a cat.

Most cat owners know to watch their step when they hear the hacking of their cat, but many don't know that hairballs can be life-threatening, not just a nuisance.

Many cats groom most of their waking hours, careful to keep their coats spotless and every hair in place. When the cat is long-haired, this can be trouble. Although constant grooming makes them beautiful to look at, it often leads to stomach problems and they respond by leaving little "presents" on the floor.

Dr. Cory Langston, service chief of community practice at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said hairballs are a frequent problem among cats, especially long-haired breeds.

"Signs of hairballs in cats are usually those associated with intestinal disturbances, particularly vomiting," Langston said. "Sometimes they have a hack or wretch that many owners mistake for a cough."

This episode can be short-lived and productive, but sometimes the hairball can block the cat's breathing.

Cat's tongues are designed to brush hair out of their coats. This hair is swallowed, but once in the stomach, it cannot be digested. Hair stays in the cat's stomach where it accumulates, mixes with stomach contents and becomes a nasty mass. The only natural way for a cat to get rid of a hairball is by vomiting.

"Hairballs that don't pass out of a cat's system can block the intestines. There is also the possibility that a hairball being coughed up can block airways," Langston said.

There are medical ways to break down hairballs so they can safely pass through the cat's digestive system. The veterinarian said most cats with hairball problems respond to a daily dose of hairball remedy, a mild laxative, such as a commercial blend of flavored mineral oil.

"I recommend all long-haired cats be given the mineral oil laxative once a week to prevent hairballs," Langston said. "Another preventative measure is to feed the cat the brands of cat food or treats that offers a special formula to prevent hairball accumulation.", an online pet information resource, suggested brushing the cat as the best way to prevent hairballs.

"By removing excess hair, you are preventing it from ending up in your cat's stomach," the site stated.

Rabbits are another pet susceptible to hairballs. They also spend quite a bit of time grooming themselves and ingest much of their shed hair. Consult a veterinarian for specific treatment for rabbits with hairball problems.


Released: April 17, 2000
Contact: Dr. Cory Langston, (662) 325-1265

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