Most cats deal with hair balls on their own; others need help

Ty is a 17-year-old, 400-pound tiger in the care of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Inc. of Seminole, a group that helps with animals that have been seized by Florida law enforcement. I don’t know Ty’s whole story, but I assume he was a victim of the exotic pet trade, that bizarre bit of human nature that leads people into thinking it would be a good idea to have a lion, tiger, bear, or alligator for a pet instead of a nice cocker spaniel. But don’t get me started on the stupid things people do with animals.

Thankfully, Ty was in good hands with the nonprofit rescue organization. When he stopped eating for almost two weeks, they brought him to BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a huge specialty and referral center in Tampa that employs around 250 veterinarians and a support staff of more than a thousand. The first veterinarian to see him was an internal medicine specialist, who took radiographs, performed an ultrasound, and finally passed a scope down into Ty’s stomach to actually take a peek right in the tiger’s tummy.

As a veterinarian myself, I can just picture the procedure. Okay, folks, what follows is strictly my imagination and may have nothing to do with what really took place.

Ty lies anesthetized on the table. All the staff members who can find a legitimate excuse to be in the room are gathered around, because when else will they get a chance to be that close to a tiger? The veterinarian advances a flexible fiberoptic endoscope through Ty’s mouth, down his esophagus, into the stomach. “What the heck is that?” he exclaims, catching a glimpse of a large expanse of coarse brown fur. “I think he swallowed a whole racoon!” he exclaims. But the mass has no feet, no face, no form. It is just a great big wad of fur. It’s…OMG…the staff giggles nervously. Ty has a ginormous hairball.

Technically called trichobezoars, hairballs commonly occur in many species, including cats, rabbits, ferrets, even chinchillas. A hairball is exactly what it sounds like, an accumulation of fur ingested via grooming that gets stuck in the stomach and packs together to form what is essentially a gastric foreign body. It’s simply too big to come up easily via vomiting, or to pass uneventfully into the intestines. It just sits there in the stomach, often irritating the gastric lining and taking up space where the kitty chow is supposed to be going.

Let’s let sleeping tigers lie for a minute, and talk about our house cat, Chucky, a normal, healthy guy with a good appetite. He’s feeling fine except he has recently started doing this revolting, heaving, racking hack several times a day. It’s hard to tell if he’s coughing or trying to upchuck. You may want to consult your veterinarian right away to make sure the symptoms don’t indicate something more serious — asthma, an intestinal obstruction, even heart failure.

But if you’ve seen the ol’ hairball hack before, and Chucky seems okay otherwise, you can try starting with over-the-counter hairball medication, which is essentially flavored petroleum jelly. The concept is it will lubricate the hairball, maybe even help loosen and “degrade” it into a less dense mass of fur, thus allowing it to pass up or down. Many cats will lick these medications off a plate or mixed in wet food. It comes in yummy varieties like tuna, or even catnip.

Other cats require a little more encouragement. I like to load the goop into a syringe (no needle), then slowly squirt it, bit by bit, into the back of Chucky’s mouth, so I am sure he gets a good dose. Don’t bother with trying butter or vegetable oil. These just get digested. Don’t try to force mineral oil down Chucky’s throat either. Mineral oil doesn’t elicit a good cough reflex, meaning Chucky could inhale it by mistake resulting in a nasty pneumonia. Stick to commercially-prepared hairball remedies. They can be messy, sticky, gooey, but I believe they are frequently effective if given in adequate amounts as directed on the tube, or by your veterinarian.

Just so you know, many feline specialists would disagree with me. They say that hairballs usually indicate underlying gastric inflammation or a motility disorder warranting diagnostics and that there is no scientific evidence that lubricants help. While it is true I can’t find any scientific studies on the efficacy of these products, I have seen them work time after time in cats. I respectively suggest that the specialists simply don’t see the millions of routine hairball cases that we general practitioners encounter. We fix the easy ones and send the more complex cases on to them.

Consuming hair through grooming and hunting is a natural part of a cat’s life in the wild. Their bodies should be designed to handle a little fur. And they usually do. But a house cat’s life is not precisely the same as living in the wild. The diet is different. Chucky probably gets less exercise. These things may all contribute to reduced gastric motility. One study showed that hairballs are more common in long-haired cats and their frequency increases with age. Studies also show that added dietary fiber can reduce the frequency of vomiting and hairballs. So if Chucky has recurrent trichobezoars, switching to a commercial “hairball” diet makes sense. There are a few instances in which you should be sure to consult your veterinarian: If a fiber-rich diet and over-the-counter lubricant medication don’t solve the problem. If Chucky shows any other signs besides the occasional Hairball Hack. If you are dealing with a rabbit, ferret, chinchilla or some other non-feline friend. If the animal with the hairball is a 400-pound tiger.

Ty’s trichobeozar was way too big to pull out with the scope or for the tiger to pass naturally. It was removed surgically. The mass of fur weighed in at four pounds and was the size of a basketball. Now that’s a hairball.