Today is National Hairball Awareness Day. The fact that someone decided it was a good idea to have a “holiday” named after hairballs is probably more of a marketing ploy to sell ineffective remedies and diets than anything else, but it’s also testament to the fact that hairballs are far too common in cats. And contrary to some of the information you may see around the web today, they are not a normal part of a cat’s digestive process.
What is a hairball?
Traditionally it has been thought that hairballs develop because of how cats groom themselves. As cats lick their fur, the tongue’s tiny barbs pull off excess hair. Inevitably, some hair gets swallowed in the process. Ideally, it passes through the body and ends up in stools, but hairballs form when hair wads up in the stomach instead.
However, more recent findings show that hairballs form because the affected cat’s intestinal motility (the movement of food content from the stomach to the intestines) is impaired, something that most commonly occurs secondary to inflammatory bowel disease, which in turn is caused in almost epidemic proportions by grain-based diets and their adverse effect on the gut flora. Gut flora is the collection of microscopic organisms that live within the intestinal system. Predominantly made up of healthy bacteria, it carries out many important functions for the cat’s health, such as the absorption of nutrients, support for the immune system, and the ability to fight disease-causing organisms.
Hairballs are not normal
A healthy cat with a healthy gut system should be able to eliminate hair ingested through grooming in her stool. Vomiting as a daily, or even weekly, method to eliminate hairballs is almost always an indicator that there is something else going on.
The connection between hairballs and diet
There appears to be a strong connection between diet and hairballs. More and more evidence points to a grain-free canned or raw diet as the answer to hairball problems. Cats are obligate carnivores, and their digestive systems are not designed to digest grains and carbs well.
What about diets marketed as hairball diets? These diets are high in fiber, and the theory behind them is that the fiber helps propel the hair through the digestive system. However, the opposite seems to happen in many cats, and the unnaturally high fiber levels contribute to impaired intestinal motility and actually lead to more vomiting. Since impaired intestinal motility is often a precursor to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and intestinal lymphoma, a grain-free diet seems to be a much better choice for prevention.
Other ways to prevent hairballs
Brush or comb your cat regularly to get rid of loose hair before your cat ingests it while grooming. Most cats love to be brushed, and regular brushing can become part of your bonding time.
What about hairball remedies?
Hairball remedies such as Petromalt or Laxatone are petroleum based, and petroleum is derived from crude oil. Does this really belong inside a cat’s stomach? Says feline veterinarian Dr. Fern Crist: “A cat is not a car. And in no way could a cat have naturally evolved to require the dosing with ‘lubricants’ to survive or to thrive. Feeding a cat something wildly different from the diet it has evolved on is more likely to result in harm than in good.”
My personal experience with hairballs
My own personal experience with cats and hairballs goes all the way back to Feebee, my first cat. I didn’t know any better back then, so he grew up on a vet-recommended commercial diet, and he ate mostly dry food. He coughed up hairballs at least a couple of times a week, despite frequent brushing and regular dosing with Laxatone. He also developed two of the classic feline diseases now associated with dry food and foods high in carbohydrates: urinary bladder stones, and later, IBD and intestinal lymphoma, which eventually took his life at age 16 in April of 2000.
Amber and Buckley both had hairball problems until I transitioned them to a grain-free canned diet. While it didn’t completely eliminate hairballs for them, they became very very rare.
Allegra and Ruby are my first completely raw-fed cats – and neither of them has ever had a hairball. They also barely shed. They have the shiniest coat of all of my cats. I brush both of them every day because they like it, but the amount of hair I pull out of the brush after each session, compressed into a ball, is smaller than the size of my thumbnail.
Photo by Austin White, Flickr Creative Commons