Identifying and Treating Bezoars in Pets

A cat cleaning itself

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A mass found in the 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 (fiber from fruits or vegetables (called phytobezoars) and even drugs (particularly antacids). These balls of hair or food cannot pass through narrow openings in the digestive tract and get stuck. While most bezoars do pass through the 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. 

Bezoars in Cats

The most commonly encountered bezoar in small animals (cats, rabbits, ferrets) is a trichobezoar, better known as a hairball. Trichobezoars are commonly found in cats who ingest hair while grooming. They are usually cylindrical masses comprised of hair, dirt from the cat's coat and undigested food particles. If you're not familiar with hairballs, you may think that your cat pooped in the house rather than the litter box. However, you'll be able to discern hairballs as they have a particular odor.

A cat's digestive system can deal with a certain amount of fur, both from her own body as well as that from prey. But lots of kitties get hairballs due to a combination of factors including hair length, patterns of shedding patterns as well as dietary deficiencies and digestive issues. If a cat has frequent hairballs, you do need to see a vet to rule out any underlying or serious conditions that could be causing them. This is especially important if hairballs suddenly occur as a new problem in an older cat.

If your cat's hairballs aren't related to illness, you can try to assist with the issue by:

  • Adjusting the diet so you can get adequate moisture
  • Adding an omega-3 supplement
  • Daily brushings, or at least several times a week

Bezoars in Dogs

Hairballs in dogs are rare since they typically don't continuously lick themselves for cleaning purposes, but it is possible. Long-haired animals and pets who constantly groom themselves, even to the point of baldness (psychogenic alopecia), are more prone to the condition.

Hairballs can be risky depending on how much hair the dog has eaten and how long it is. As the hair builds up, it can become entangled and form a nearly solid piece that can't be coughed or vomited up. Symptoms of hairballs in canines include:

  • Constipation
  • Repeated attempts to cough or vomit
  • Gagging
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • A bloated stomach, in more serious cases

Hairballs can be life-threatening if it has grown hard inside your dog'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 prevent food from passing through the digestive system, and it can also puncture the dog's stomach as the hairs become stiffer over time. See your vet early to diagnose the condition and prevent it from escalating.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.