On Friday, which was National Hairball Awareness Day, I interviewed one of the top cat experts in the U.S., Dr Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP, about hairballs and warm weather wellness tips.
In addition to being the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, Dr Plotnick is the medical editor of Catnip magazine, and is a regular contributor to CatFancy magazine. He is on the editorial advisory board of the veterinary journal Veterinary Forum, and is one of the feline experts on CatChannel.com. He proudly states that he lives and breathes kitty cats. (Find out more about Dr Plotnick’s cats here.)
KAREN: Many cat owners think hairballs are no big deal, that it’s just part of being a cat. Is that true, or can hairballs present real medical problems?
DR PLOTNICK: Well in many cases, hairballs really are a minor problem. Once every couple of weeks or months, the cat might vomit up a hairball, and that’s no big deal.
But there are some cats — for example, fastidious cats who like to do a lot of grooming, cats who shed a lot, or long-haired cats — who will swallow a lot of hair, and for these cats, hairballs can be a real problem. They might vomit a lot, or the hairball gets really big and they could conceivably choke on a hairball.
If the hair is not vomited up — sometimes it will pass through the intestinal tract and if it gets all the way through the intestinal tract it can cause some uncomfortable constipation. If it DOESN’T pass through the intestinal tract – that’s not very common but it does happen — the cat can get an intestinal obstruction. So swallowing large amounts of hair can lead to problems.
KAREN: When it causes uncomfortable constipation, is that something that works itself out, or does it require veterinary attention?
DR PLOTNICK: In most cases, the cats will be okay, but there are some cats who seem to have a chronic problem. I don’t know that it necessarily requires veterinary attention, as in treating the cats because they’re sick, but you may find yourself treating them with some sort of hairball remedy or putting them on hairball formula diets, to try to lessen the number of hairballs.
KAREN: What is it in the hairball remedy diets that helps the cat to keep from forming hairballs?
DR PLOTNICK: The hairball diets have an increased amount of fiber, and that seems to help cats manage their hairball problems.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a special prescription diet. You can add fiber to the cat’s diet in other ways. For example, surprisingly, canned pumpkin has a fair amount of fiber. And you wouldn’t think that cats, as carnivores, would be all that crazy about it, but many of them really seem to like it. Putting a spoonful or two of canned pumpkin in their canned cat food is a good way to add fiber to their diet naturally.
KAREN: How important is grooming in keeping hairballs at bay? Does grooming help, or will the cat ingest the same amount of hair whether you groom her or not?
DR PLOTNICK: Grooming is very important; in fact, it’s what I recommend first. I tend to focus on preventive medicine. Rather than trying to treat the hairball problem, you should just assume that all cats are going to have hairballs, and try to prevent the hairballs from occurring at all.
The way to do that is to remove the hair from the cat before the cat actually swallows it. That involves deliberate grooming on the owner’s part. Cats who are short-haired can be brushed two or three times a week, while long-haired cats are probably best groomed every day. I think the FURminator® brush is probably the most effective tool. It removes tons of loose hair.
KAREN: Yes, I can testify to that. I’ve removed piles of hair from my cats using the FURminator.
The cat of mine who gets the most benefit from it is a 19-year-old who’s a lot less rigorous about grooming in his old age than he was in his youth. And during this time of year, as he begins to shed his winter coat, we do daily grooming sessions until all of the loose winter coat hair has been removed. He appreciates the one-on-one personal attention, and purrs all the way through the grooming session; he really likes it. And it gives me a chance to feel for any lumps or tender spots.
DR PLOTNICK: Yes, all these things you’ve mentioned are exactly correct. Older cats are not as fastidious about grooming so we need to pay more attention to them. A lot of people don’t realize that besides the health benefits of grooming, this is also bonding time for you and your cat. She’ll like being fussed over, and it allows you to spend some time doting on the cat. And as you’ve said, as you’re brushing and feeling the cat it offers you a better opportunity to discover any lumps or bumps or anything unusual, that in an older cat, can be more worrisome than with a younger cat. So yeah, you hit the nail on the head.
KAREN: The first time I had a cat as an adult, before he coughed up a hairball he made this loud, otherworldly exorcist sound that scared the daylights out of me. As a cat owner, that can be terrifying! I thought he was on the brink of death.
DR PLOTNICK: Some cats — and my own cat — before they vomit will make a strange sort of meow. My cat, she does this odd meow that I interpret as “You have 30 seconds to get a paper towel under me!”
KAREN: Now that the weather is getting warmer people are spending more time in their gardens, and perhaps their cats are outside in their gardens with them. Do you have a short list of things for the cat owner to keep in mind when she’s stocking up at the lawn and garden center in terms of what causes health problems for cats?
DR PLOTNICK: You really need to read the label carefully on any type of fertilizer, pesticide or insecticide to see if it’s safe to use around animals. For example, slug bait can be very toxic to pets. You have to be very careful with that. Any time you’re putting something down in the yard, you may want to wait before letting your cat roam around in the yard. Fertilizer and plant food generally is fine, but any type of pesticide, you really have to be careful before letting your cat go in the yard.
KAREN: How long should they wait, approximately?
DR PLOTNICK: Well, it can depend on the product. Your best bet is to call the manufacturer’s phone number on the label to see what they recommend because they’re all different.
KAREN: And of course, ideally, if the gardener uses green gardening techniques and products vs. pesticides and other chemicals, the cat will be better off.
Dr PLOTNICK: Exactly.
KAREN: Are there any outdoor plants in particular that present a problem with cats. I know there’s a very long list of ones that are poisonous, but are there any that are irresistible to cats, that most commonly cause health problems?
DR PLOTNICK: Outdoor plants are usually not a problem. You’ll see many cats nibbling on grass and that will cause them to vomit, and that’s sort of why they’re doing it, to purge themselves. The plants that I fear the most for cats are the lilies. Lilies are very toxic to cats. All parts of the plant are toxic to cats, including the leaves and even the pollen is toxic to cats. I don’t know how many people are planting lilies in their yards, but that’s the one I worry about the most.
KAREN: Any other warm-weather tips to keep your cat healthy?
DR PLOTNICK: Well, cats are far less susceptible to heat stroke than dogs. They’ll find a cool spot in the yard and be fine. Anti freeze is more a winter problem than a summer problem, although some people use it during the summer months, and that’s always a concern. But in the warm weather, I’m more concerned about bees and mosquitos and fleas. Fleas can drive cats crazy, especially if they have flea allergies. Mosquitos can transmit heartworm disease and even though cats are not the natural host for heartworm disease, they can get heartworm disease, and it’s pretty devastating when they do.
KAREN: How do you keep cats away from mosquitos?
DR PLOTNICK: Well, you can’t keep them away from mosquitos, but you can put things on the cat that can prevent heartworm disease if an infected mosquito does bite the cat. There are topical products and there are also oral products, things like Heart Guard that is a heartworm preventative so that if a cat is bitten by an infected mosquito she won’t get heartworm.
KAREN: So this is something that people living in areas with high rates of mosquito infestation should consider giving to their cats?
DR PLOTNICK: Absolutely. Certainly for people living in the south — Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, for example — it’s a problem. But people in the Northeast should not take it for granted that their cats will be okay. Heartworm is reported in all 50 states.
KAREN: Good to know! Mosquitos are completely off my radar; I’d never have guessed they’d be a problem for my cats. Thanks for taking the time to share your warm weather wellness tips!
- Prevention is the key to hairball management. Frequent grooming with a deshedding tool like the FURminator will help eliminate the loose hair that would otherwise find its way into your cat’s digestive tract.
- If your cat is susceptible to hairballs, a hairball relief formulated food — or additional fiber, like canned pumpkin — will help the hair move through the digestive tract.
- Slug bait and pesticides are extremely toxic to pets. (Even if your cat is an indoor cat, they can be deadly to any neighborhood animals.) Consider switching to non-toxic alternatives.
- If you use antifreeze in the summer as well as winter, make sure there are no leaks or spills that your cat might be tempted to drink.
- Lilies are extremely poisonous to cats — and this includes their pollen.
- Your cat can get heartworm — from mosquitos. Use a heartworm preventative if you live in an area infested with mosquitos.
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