Bezoars are gastrointestinal masses that can affect dogs, cats, humans, and other animals. Most bezoars that occur in cats are basically hairballs. Many bezoars are vomited up or will pass through a cat's GI tract without issue. However, some cannot be passed naturally and cause a partial or full gastrointestinal obstruction. These cats will need veterinary medical attention.
What Are Bezoars in Cats?
With regards to cats, the term bezoar (pronounced "BEE-zorr") describes a mass of foreign material that develops in the gastrointestinal tract, most often the stomach. The material may become formed into a firm, round ball in the stomach. Some bezoars will be vomited up, digested, or passed through the remainder of the GI tract and defecated out. However, some are too large and compacted to be expelled from the body. These bezoars can lead to serious gastrointestinal obstructions.
There are a few different types of bezoars that can affect cats.
- Trichobezoars, commonly called hairballs are comprised mainly of hair ingested while grooming. The hair is typically mixed with dirt and debris from the coat as well as food from the stomach.
- Phytobezoars contain plant materials and fiber from fruits or vegetables.
- Pharmacobezoars are rare in cats. These occur when medications, especially antacids, combine in the stomach. This is partly due to the coating of the pills that can stick together when wet.
Signs of Bezoars in Cats
- Loss of appetite
- Retching/heaving/trying to vomit
- Vomiting (especially liquid)
- Diarrhea (may be watery)
- Abdominal discomfort and/or swelling
A cat with a bezoar may not show any signs of illness at first. You may first notice that your cat is retching or heaving in an attempt to vomit the stomach contents, but little or nothing comes up. You may see that your cat has been coughing up hairballs frequently and now suddenly has little interest in food and is not acting normal.
It's important to contact you vet if your cat is showing these signs or any other signs that there is a problem. Remember that cats instinctively hide illness as long as possible as a means for survival.
Causes of Bezoars in Cats
The most common reason why a cat may develop a bezoar is by ingesting hair and debris while grooming. In small quantities, these materials may be able to pass through the GI tract or the cat may couch them up as hairballs. Excess amounts of hair and debris may accumulate with food in the stomach and form a trichobezoar that cannot be passed.
Phytobezoars are less common that trichobezoars and develop when fibrous plant material accumulates into a solid mass in the GI tract. These are not common in cats
Though rare in cats, multiple medications can form a clump in the stomach and become a pharmacobezoar.
Treatment for Bezoars in Cats
Your vet will begin with a thorough examination to determine the overall health and condition of your cat. It is possible that the vet will be able to feel a mass when palpating your cat's abdomen. If a mass is felt, then the vet will likely recommend radiographs (X-rays) of the abdomen. Blood and urine tests may also be necessary to assess organ function and blood cell counts, especially if your cat might have a GI obstruction.
Some bezoars can be treated medically with laxatives and lubricating agents that help the cat more easily pass the bezoar. However, some bezoars are too large and hard to respond to these medications. In this more serious case, the cat will typically need surgery to remove the bezoar.
Abdominal surgery is performed under general anesthesia. Your vet will open your cat's abdomen and then open the GI tract where the bezoar is located. The bezoar will be carefully removed and the GI tract inspected for damage. Unhealthy tissue may be removed before your vet carefully sutures the GI tract back together. The abdomen will be sutured closed and your cat will likely need hospitalized care for a few days. Your vet will likely send your cat home with medications to assist in healing and prevent the recurrence of bezoars.
How to Prevent Bezoars in Cats
The best way to prevent bezoars in cats is to minimize the amount of hair and debris your cat consumes at one time. Your vet can advise you about medication and supplements that can be used for prevention.
Never give your cat laxatives or other medications or supplements without first speaking with your veterinarian. Some treatments can cause more harm than good.
- Keep your cat well-hydrated by switching to a wet food diet and/or making water sources more appealing (cat fountains work for some).
- Add a teaspoon of olive oil or coconut oil to your cat's food, if tolerated.
- Give your cat supplements like Omega-3 fatty acids if your vet agrees they are safe
- Brush your cat regularly to reduce how much hair your cat ingests and to remove debris fro the coat.
- Wipe down your pet's fur with cat-specific cleaning wipes to remove extra dander and dirt that may be ingested.
- Bring your cat to the veterinarian for a routine wellness checkup as recommended (typically every six to 12 months). Your vet may be able to detect a minor problem before your cat shows signs.