Do Lions & Tigers Get Hairballs?

In the years I’ve worked with cats, I’ve curiously had limited cases and personal experiences with hairballs or formally trichobezars.  So, when I agreed to talk about hairballs on a recent Petropolist podcast, I found I had more questions than answers.

What are hairballs? How do they develop? Are they just innocuous or can they be life threatening? How often is normal for a cat to bring up a hairball? And what can we do to prevent our cats from developing them? For those of you who’ve had the experience of stepping on that slimy, cigar-shaped deposit and frustrated by on-going issues, maybe my pursuit of questions will offer some relief for you and your cat.

When cats groom themselves or other cats, they ingest the fur due to the backward-slanted projections (papillae) on their tongue that pulls in loosened hair and directs down the throat to be swallowed. Since hair is indigestible, it should then pass through the digestive tract and get eliminated through feces. If hair remains and is not emptied from the stomach, then it begins to mix with gastric secretions and food, accumulating into a sponge like texture. The unique cigar like shape only develops from being expelled through the esophagus and they can be an inch to 5 inches in length. If the hairball becomes too large to vomit up or pass, or gets lodged in the GI tract, then surgery is required. So yes, they can become life-threatening.

When should you become alarmed? Through all my research, I was overwhelmed with the volumes on hairball elimination recommendations but found extraordinarily little on causes and prevention. Articles offered quotes that ranged from “It’s not uncommon to regurgitate a hairball once or twice a week,” to “once or twice a year isn’t normal.” There are scads of remedies, foods, and treats to help your cat eliminate. But to get to the root of hairballs and prevention, I started by asking if their big cat cousins got hairballs.

“Even though cats of all sizes groom themselves the same way, hairballs are ‘not a normal thing in big cats,’ captive or not,” Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital commented in the National Geographic story Do Big Cats Get Hairballs? Hairballs may be attributed to an underlying gastrointestinal problem, like inflammatory bowel disease. However, a controversial topic is whether commercial foods can trigger digestive issues, says Johnson.  He goes on to explain big cats such as jaguars and leopards get meat and animal carcasses—a species appropriate diet while smaller wildcats, such as servals or ocelots living in captivity, are often fed a domestic cat-type of diet. “This may explain why the smaller wild cats occasionally vomit up hairballs,” Johnston offers.

Enjoy this podcast with Tazz Latifi, as we discuss how critical diet can be for hairball prevention and what therapies we’ve found beneficial (and one I’m reprimanded for) in managing hairballs. Just know while there is a lot of laughter and banter in this episode, trichobezars are no laughing matter.  There’s more to hairballs than the gross yakked yak! 

© Terri Grow, 2021

Terri Grow writes and speaks on pet health and welfare, working with veterinarians, trainers, shelters and manufacturers to empower canine and feline health through diets, herbal therapies, supplements and environmental adjustments.