Cats and fur balls

It’s a bit of an ‘old wives tale’ that fur balls are the reason why cats are sick alot.  Just thinking about that statement for a few moments presents a bit of a problem to explain.  Why on earth would cats have a thing on the outside of their bodies (namely fur), that whenever they groomed it off and swallow the stuff caused them to be sick ?  That just doesn’t make sense.  The reality is that there’s almost always some fur in a cat’s stomach, because they’re always grooming.  So when they’re sick, it’s highly likely that they’ll bring up a fur ball.  But it’s not the cause of the sickness.

We’re going to have to look a bit closer at a cat’s digestion to find the actual reason for this intermittent vomiting.  Delving a little deeper it becomes pretty evident that cats have a significant design fault in the way their pancreas works which can help to explain these sickness episodes.  For 80% of cats the pancreas empties by just one tube in to the bowel.  Any infection from the gut can go up this single pipe causing irritation and blockage.  An analogy would be to think of the guttering around a house with just one down pipe.  Any leaves collecting in the single down pipe would lead to blockage and an overflowing gutter.  Similarly for the cat’s pancreas.

At this stage it’s probably useful to look at what the pancreas actually does as a job for the cat.  Amongst other things it deposits digestive juices on to food to break it up in to smaller pieces that the body can use for fuel.  And those digestive juices travel down this single tube from the pancreas to get to the food in the intestine.  If there’s damage to the tube the digestive juices end up rebounding back up the tube and digesting the pancreas instead!  And that hurts, a lot.  Think of it like an acid burn feeling and you won’t be far off.  This then leads to feelings of nausea and ultimately vomiting, either food, fur balls or just fluid, dependant on what is in the stomach at the time.

It’s not just a problem seen in older cats; but of course older cats will have had longer for the problem to become established.  In actual fact, cats of any age can develop intermittent vomiting, and they often do.  Whether, as an owner, we see it will depend on how much a cat stays in.  Youngsters are out and about much more than their seniors usually, so their sickness episodes will often be missed until a cat ‘settles down’ to a more sedentary lifestyle in their twilight years.  During annual health checks we’re always on the look out for small but consistent weight drop over time which may give a clue to this problem developing.  To get around the pain induced by this condition some cats learn to eat less or even stop eating altogether, because they’ve recognised the association between eating food and sickness following.  Early intervention helps us Vets manage the problem very successfully, which is why, after the age of 10, cats are invited in for free half-yearly health checks to keep a monitor on any signs of this insidious problem developing.