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As your fur child throws itself into a session of serious grooming or is nursing that bad habit of constantly licking itself, you know the chances are pretty high that they’ll eventually be delivering you a present of fuzzy tufts. Hairballs are a reality for most cat owners as their feline friends, are by nature, accustomed to constantly sprucing up their appearance, however dogs with medium to long coats can also develop hairballs just as frequently.
Hairballs, otherwise known as tricholiths or trichobezoars, are clumps of entangled hair that is difficult to digest, thereby becoming wedged in a pet’s stomach, oesophagus or intestine.
If you would like to get better acquainted with the causes, symptoms and remedies for managing these hairy occurrences in your beloved pet, then read on…
Causes of Hairballs in Pets
Your furry companion’s grooming habits are the primary reason why they develop hairballs in the first place.
Cats are known to spend up to 50% of their time awake grooming. This is instinctive behaviour and they do it for several reasons. They groom to remove food and odors from their fur so they are not potential targets for predators. They groom to cool themselves down. Licking their fur distributes natural oils evenly around their coats which also seals in the heat. It is also thought that cat saliva contains certain enzymes that turn it into a natural antibiotic. By licking wounds, it may be guarding against infection. Cats groom to relax and take comfort in the ritual of cleaning head to tail. As the book by Jake M. Lewis states: When in Doubt Wash: A Mother Cat’s Advice to her kitten. A cat’s tongue is covered with tiny, bristle-like hairs and provides stimulation to the skin and increases blood flow when they lick and groom.
So with all these good reasons to groom, cats accumulate a lot of hair in their systems.
Canines however may engage in excessive grooming rituals during winter months when their skin becomes dry and irritated or if they develop skin problems such as allergies, ticks and fleas. Shedding season can also contribute to the occurrence of hairballs if they are left to tend to their own grooming devices. Luckily, during this process, much of the dead hair caught on the surface of the tongue is easily passed on as fecal matter. However, some stubborn hair left behind in the stomach may be expelled in the form of hairballs through the oesophagus.
Risks associated with hairballs depend on the amount of and duration the hair has been present in the gastrointestinal tract. Pets with a healthy elimination rate will easily expel moderate amounts of hair, however those with slower rates of elimination or those that are sick or weak, will endure problems even if small quantities of hair are ingested. If the hair has settled in your pet’s stomach for some time, chances are that the hairball has grown hard and large, thereby causing an obstruction in the stomach.
The physical symptoms such as gagging, vomiting and retching which occur when your pet ejects a hairball can be upsetting for a pet parent to watch but it’s important that you monitor this process closely to check if it has caused any blockages.
A veterinarian should be contacted immediately if a potential obstruction overlaps with the following symptoms:
- loss of appetite
- persistent vomiting without the ejection of hairballs
- weakness and lethargy
- bloated stomach (regarding more severe cases)
In most cases, hairballs that are moderate in size can be ejected via the mouth and should not warrant a cause for concern for pet parents. However, if these hairballs grow too big and become unable to pass through the intestines, this could subsequently be cause for alarm. In the incident that a hairball causes an obstruction within the digestive system, a veterinarian may prescribe laxatives to your furry friend to resolve the issue. However, if the obstruction is severe enough in nature and has the potential to lead to further complications, then surgery may be the way forward.
It is not possible to completely prevent hairballs, yet pet owners can take some simple steps to minimize the occurrence thereof:
- Regular Grooming: By ensuring your loyal buddy is well-groomed with routine combing or brushing sessions, you will not only reduce the chances of hairballs developing but you can consider this special bonding time with your treasured fur baby. Grooming frequency should increase as your pet’s shedding rate increases. You can also wipe them down with a damp cloth to rid any excess hair. Throw the loose hairs away in a closed bin so they are inaccessible to your pet.
- Feed your pet a healthy diet: A diet naturally high in fibre and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, enhances the quality of your pet’s coat and can also assist in reducing the chances of developing hairballs.
- Speak to your veterinarian about giving your pet mild laxatives that can contribute to smoothly guiding a hairball through the digestive tract. Note: The use of laxatives for pets should only be used under a professional veterinarian’s supervision.
- Any excessive grooming behaviour on your pet’s part should be monitored closely to find out the actual causes thereof. If your pet has been chewing at or licking their skin more than usual, it could be possible that they are suffering from allergies, in which case your vet can best prescribe something to treat the irritation.
- Protect your pet from ticks or fleas to avoid them having to gnaw and lick in response to the related aggravation. Ticks and fleas should be treated immediately to prevent further problems from unfolding. read about Flea and Tick Prevention in Dogs
- Keep your pet hydrated. Hydration is the key to a healthy gut so ensure your pet has constant access to water. This will also support easier elimination in your fur ball friend.
- Ensure your pet is stimulated: Some pets gnaw and lick themselves relentlessly merely out of boredom or anxiety so ensure you keep them occupied and happy with toy puzzles, chew toys, regular walks and spending enough quality time with them.
Written for inFURmation
by Taliah Williamson
Disclaimer: The information produced by Infurmation is provided for general and educational purposes only and does not constitute any legal, medical or other professional advice on any subject matter. These statements are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Always seek the advice of your vet or other qualified health care provider prior to starting any new diet or treatment and with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you suspect that your pet has a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.