A mass found in a cat's gastrointestinal tract, most commonly the stomach, is called a bezoar. The partially digested or undigested mass of material may consist of hair (called trichobezoars), plant materials and fiber from fruits or vegetables (called phytobezoars), and even medicine (particularly antacids). These balls of hair or food cannot pass through narrow openings in the digestive tract and they get stuck. While most bezoars do pass through a feline's system without treatment, some need to be broken down with an ingested agent or removed surgically as they can become so large that it can be life-threatening to your cat.
Bezoars in Cats
The most commonly encountered bezoar in small animals (cats, rabbits, and ferrets) is a trichobezoar, better known as a hairball. Trichobezoars are commonly found in cats who ingest hair while grooming. Cats are fastidious groomers, which is why hairballs are commonly regurgitated once every week or two. Bezoars are usually cylindrical masses comprised of hair, dirt from the cat's coat, and undigested food particles, though once it gets to the stomach, it will become round. If you're not familiar with how a damp hairball looks, you may think that your cat defecated in the house rather than in the litter box. However, you'll be able to discern hairballs as they have a particular, unpleasant odor.
A cat's digestive system can deal with a certain amount of fur, both from its own body as well as from that of its prey. But many cats get hairballs due to a combination of factors including hair length, shedding patterns, dietary deficiencies, and digestive issues. If a cat has frequent and almost daily hairballs, you need to see a vet to rule out any underlying or serious conditions that could be causing them. Seeing a vet is also critical if you notice your cat is experiencing unproductive retching. The problem might be a result of another respiratory ailment, and not because of a bezoar. Regardless, a vet visit is especially important if hairballs suddenly occur as a new problem in an older cat that may struggle with removing the mass from its system.
If your cat's hairballs aren't related to illness, you can try to assist your pet with the issue in four ways:
- Adjust your cat's diet to give it additional and adequate moisture.
- Add an omega-3 supplement, or mix in a small amount of olive oil if tolerated, to your cat's food.
- Brush daily, or at least several times a week, to reduce how much hair your cat ingests.
- Wipe down your pet's fur with special cat wipes to remove extra dander and dirt that it may ingest.
Hairballs can be life-threatening if it has grown hard inside your cat's stomach. This risk is usually associated with a large amount of fur ingested along with a poor state of health. A hardened hairball will also prevent food from passing through the digestive system, and it can also irritate the cat's stomach if the hairs stiffen over time. See your vet early to diagnose the condition and prevent it from escalating.