I'm going to make a bold statement here: there are few things worse than being awakened by the sound of retching. Further, there are even fewer things worse than being awakened by the sound of retching coming from somewhere near one's feet, under the covers.
"IckLLL - ickLLL - ickLLL - ickLL gooooorrrrrk - GACK!" Musically, I'd have written a large crescendo above the line, followed by a quarter note rest and some percussive lip smacking ad libitum at the close of the phrase. My reaction to the first "ickLLL" was to sit bolt upright and whip the covers off me to reveal Walter, our dachshund, looking miserable. Thinking fast, I lifted him onto the vinyl upholstered ottoman beside the bed (his "stepping stool") a much easier surface to clean.
Here came the big finish, "GACK!" And we both looked - nothing. Not even a speck of spittle after all that effort and drama. What was that all about? Walter seemed to shrug, as if to say, "Huh. That was weird," and climbed back into bed. I thought about taking him outside, but figured the worst was over, and if I got up, I'd be sure to have trouble going back to sleep. Also, the room was cold and bed was warm - I figured I'd just lie there for awhile and listen, just in case.
I quickly returned to sleep. About an hour passed, and "IckLLL - ickLL - ickLLL " Oh, no, not again. Off went the covers, down went Walter onto the ottoman. "GACK!" Still nothing. Huh.
Now, a normal person wouldn't have allowed Walter access to the bed at this point, nor would have been able to fall asleep. But, at least on this night, I was not a normal person. I was lulled by the gentle tapping of a steady, cold rain on the bedroom windows. My bed was too warm, and I was too unmotivated, despite the clear consequences, to ascertain the cause of my dog's discomfort. I assessed that he couldn't be that uncomfortable if he wanted to go back to sleep more than I.
Walter was not interested in being removed from his usual station under the covers at my feet. No matter how many times I tried to place him on the floor, he leapt back up and burrowed under the covers, settling himself immediately. Removing the ottoman only caused him to leap desperately and unsuccessfully at the bed, whimpering and looking hurt. So, I took the path of least resistance and gave up.
Like every good story, it happened a third time. I once again moved Walter, retching all the way, to the ottoman where he finally produced something very slimy, large, and peculiar. I put on my glasses to examine it further. It resembled in size, shape and color a full grown hamster.
Now Walter is very small, only about 17 lbs., and is (I think) physically incapable of swallowing a full sized hamster. Further, I'm not sure where he'd get one. Fearing I may have to put my limited forensic skills to work, and maybe autopsy the alien creature that had been apparently causing my dog's indigestion all night, I realized what it was: an enormous hairball.
Walter is a smooth-coated, black and tan variety of dachshund, with not-so-much tan. He sheds very scant, very short black hairs. So, what was the source of this proportionately massive, tan hairball? Then I realized it was Westley, my parents' Golden Retriever - Walter's best friend.
Walter and Westley had been spending a lot of extra time together, and as a result, Walter had been ingesting progressively larger quantities of Westley's hair. Walter yanks on Westley's tail "feathers" and long, Fabio-fabulous golden locks to annoy and pester. It's generally a tactic he employs when Westley is trying to be good and chew a rawhide or play quietly with a dog toy. I had no idea that all this time, Walter had been actually swallowing the hair.
Dogs are not commonly afflicted with hairballs, medically termed "trichobezoars." (Use that word for your friends, and you'll be sure to impress.) There are, however, some predisposing factors. A very thick coat, the propensity to groom oneself and others obsessively, or just being stupid like Walter and swallowing big tufts of hair because it's a joy to the palate are all ways to acquire a hairball.
With that in mind, it is easy to see how the average cat is at risk for at least a few hairballs in a lifetime. The good news is that most cats either bring them up or pass them without incident. It generally is a requirement of cats to bring up a hairball on the most beloved or once beautiful furnishing or article of clothing in the home. If that is inaccessible, a location in the general path of someone in bare feet is acceptable.
The important point is that in most cases, hairballs don't cause serious problems to the cat - property damage and owners' resulting ire notwithstanding.
It is not normal to see problems caused by typical hair ingestion in any animal that bears fur. Frequent, recurrent bouts of indigestion may be a sign of motility disorders of the gut, gastric ulcers, masses in the stomach or intestines, dehydration, renal failure or even skin allergies, to name a few. Very itchy animals, for example, tend to chew off and swallow more hair than is normal, and are more apt to vomit or regurgitate this hair as a result.
Decreased or absent movement in the GI tract can cause normal accumulations of hair in the stomach to act similarly to a foreign body. This is very rare.
In Walter's case, the hair WAS the foreign body, as it was neither normal in consistency nor quantity. The same result could have been obtained via eating the polyester batting from inside a pillow or stuffed animal, which he also has done. I have often wondered how that must feel going down.
Rabbits get hairballs, but this species is incapable of vomiting. Normal rabbits pass the hair they ingest without incident if they are eating a diet high in roughage like timothy hay.
Rabbits eating primarily pelleted diets and seed and nut-containing rabbit treats are at risk for disorders of GI motility, causing gas buildup, teeth grinding, poor appetite and scant or absent stool production. The hairball is a symptom, not the cause. Stomach and intestinal problems can quickly become serious in a rabbit, so any bunny showing these symptoms should be seen by their veterinarian.
Products sold over-the-counter as hairball remedies are usually flavored petroleum jelly based compounds. These products act as a laxative, greasing up the insides, so to speak. If you choose to try this method to treat an occasional problem with hairballs in your cat or dog, it is important to follow the recommended dosage, adjusting the dose to effect, as these products can cause some serious diarrhea if overused.
Various cat food manufacturers have introduced hairball diets, designed to reduce the number of hairballs by using fiber as a motility agent, attracting water to the gut and moving things through more easily. Anecdotal reports from owners are usually positive; most feel these foods work moderately well.
When should an owner be worried about more serious problems with hairballs? If the animal seems to vomit or regurgitate very often (at least several times a week) whether or not the upchucked material contains hair, a visit to the veterinarian is warranted. This is true even if the animal has not lost weight or does not seem sick, because it could indicate a much more serious, chronic, insidious disease.
Years ago, a hairball remedy bore the slogan, "Hairballs: Unhealthy. Annoying. Embarrassing." I'm not sure if it was directed at the owner or the animal, but I feel it's important to point out that most animals really don't care about when, where or on whom they bring up one of these little beauties.
Walter showed not the least bit of embarrassment following the passage of his huge hairball. He basically smacked his lips a few times, sniffed at it once, winced as if to say, "Ugh, gross," and went back to bed.
It was then, when the saga was over, that I couldn't sleep.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.