What is trichobezoar?

The elusive and very unpleasant hairball is something that every cat owner will experience at some point. Cats in general are very clean and well-kept animals and grooming is an essential routine for them to ensure their cleanliness. A healthy cat is one that grooms.  Hairballs are simply a by-product of your cat’s hygiene.

A trichobezoar, commonly known as a hairball, is a clump of indigestible hair, moistened by bile and digestive fluid that may or may not contain bits of food or other foreign material. Hairballs are not usually round in shape but rather drawn-out and the shape of a sausage. This is due to their passage through the oesophagus, the tube connecting the stomach to the mouth, which is long and cylindrical. Hairballs can occasionally resemble faeces but on closer examination one will notice it is made up of hair. It also does not smell like faeces although it does not have a particularly pleasant odour.

How are hairballs formed?

During your cat’s grooming routine, some of the loose hair shed from their coat is directed backwards into the mouth where it is swallowed and ends up in the stomach. This is an unavoidable complication of grooming as cats have tiny backwards facing hook-like projections on their tongue which acts almost like a one way valve, directing anything that comes into the mouth into the back of the throat. Once in the stomach, the majority of these hairs will pass through the intestinal tract without any problems and come out in the cat’s stool. However, a small proportion can remain in the stomach and collect there, forming a hairball. The hairball will enlarge as more hairs collect until it reaches a point where there is no longer space for it. When this occurs, the hairball irritates the stomach and the will often be retched up but in some instances it may move out of the stomach into the intestine, which may result in complications such as blockages.

Hairballs are more common in long haired breed such as Persians, Maine Coons and Domestic Longhairs. This is purely because there is more hair to swallow. Cats that tend to groom excessively are also prone to hairballs. Often hairballs are only noticed later on in a cat’s life and not as a kitten. The reason for this is that as they grow, cats become more efficient groomers.

How do you know your cat has a hairball?

Sometimes you will discover the hairball and now, knowing what to look out for, you will be able to identify it for what it is. Often though, you can witness one or more of your cats in the process of bringing-up the hairball. This involves hacking, gagging and retching with the delivery of a rather nasty package of hair and digestive juices in short order. It can be alarming to witness, but once the hairball is out your cat will be relieved and will continue with everyday life.

In the event that your cat shows persistent signs of any of the following you should seek the advice of the vet immediately:

  • vomiting
  • gagging
  • unproductive retching or hacking without producing a hairball
  • refusal to eat
  • lethargy
  • constipation
  • diarrhea.

Although these may be signs of a hairball causing complications, such as an intestinal or esophageal blockage, they may be caused by a variety of other factors and only with a thorough clinical work-up can the cause be determined.

How to control hairballs and the associated complications:

  1. Regular grooming: Brushing your cat on a daily basis to assist with his/her grooming routine and removing any loose hairs will go a long way to reducing the incidence of hairballs. After grooming your cat it is a good idea to wipe them down with a damp (not wet) cloth to remove any remaining loose hairs. If you are unable to groom your cat or they will not allow you to do so, taking them to a professional groomer on a regular basis for either grooming or shaving would be the alternative.
  2. Feed your cat a specially formulated hairball food: Almost all major pet food brands have a hairball formula in their range. The basis for these diets is carefully balanced nutrients that insure the general health of cats, helping to control and avoid the formation of hairballs. They are high is natural vegetable fibers that assist in the passage of food and hair through the digestive tract and essential fatty acids that promote a healthy skin and coat, reducing the amount of shedding or hair loss.
  3. The use of a mild laxative: There are several products on the market that can be recommended by the veterinarian. These mild laxatives acting as lubricants by drawing water into the intestinal tract, promote the movement of any hair or small hairballs through the intestinal tract, to be excreted with the faeces.
  4. Distracting your cat from excessive grooming: In the event of a cat being an excessive groomer, along with all the above remedies, one should attempt to train your cat to do other activities besides grooming. This can be achieved in the form of new toys or any alternative activities that will distract your cat and prevent excessive grooming. Although difficult, any small amount of reduction in their grooming can help in the long run.

As a cat owner you now have some ways of controlling or even avoiding the occurrence of those nasty hairballs - monitor your cats for signs of hairballs and act to prevent hairballs from becoming a health risk for your cat. If you are concerned about any aspect of anything which may remotely resemble the presence of a hairball in your cat don’t hesitate to contact the vet immediately.

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