Target is looking good. His fur is smooth and shiny, his eyes are bright, his claws are perfect talons, and his nose is a shade cooler than room temperature. He’s also purring up a storm.
However, every now and again, he gets up and hacks like an old man. It’s purr-purr-hack-hack-hack and then back to purr-purr. Usually I take my cats to the vet if there’s the slightest thing different. That’s partly because I worry but also because of feline character.
While a dog may act out a five-act drama over a scuffed paw pad, a cat is more like Monty Python’s Black Knight, yelling, “Tis but a scratch” as he loses his limbs. Cats are the strong and silent toughies of the animal kingdom.
But this time we haven’t trekked in for professional help because I’ve seen this before. My little cat has a hairball problem.
Healthy cats are incredibly fastidious, devoting a lot of time every day to grooming. If you’ve ever been licked by your kitty, you’ll know they have weird sand-papery tongues. That is because a cat tongue is covered in little hook-like spines called “papillae”.
These papillae feel tough because they’re made from keratin, the same stuff that makes our nails and their claws.
As cats wash themselves, these hooks unravel little knots, and pick up tiny bits of dirt. It’s like being scrubbed clean with a rather efficient hairbrush.
Cats do love a bit of attention and they preen if you admire them. However, they don’t keep super clean because they’re proud little animals who enjoy being worshipped; keeping clean is important because cats are mighty hunters.
Our pets stalk and capture their targets – often mice and birds – by lying in deep cover, leopard-crawling special-forces style and then pouncing on their victims. If they have a whiff that gives their presence away from six paces, they’re going to go hungry fast – hence the kitty obsession with grooming.
Now, Target is not exactly hunting his dinner; he has servants who fill his bowl at his meow. But instinct runs deep and so he grooms himself until his fur shines in the sunlight.
The thing is, with every lick of that spiny tongue, our boy ingests a little fur. Most of the time, it goes straight through him and out the other end. However, sometimes, hair collects in the stomach, and you get a hairball.
Long-haired cats like Persians often have trouble with hairballs, and even their tongues can’t cope with tangled fur, which is why they need to be brushed every day. Target is technically a short-haired cat, but I have to say he has quite long fur. Some of his coat is 2.5cm to 3cm in length.
Also, my old boy is shedding a lot at the moment. Cats shed all year round, but there are definitely times when he seems to lose a lot more fur than others.
Why cats shed is still not completely understood but there’s no doubt it’s a mix of genetics and environment. What is interesting is that it’s not really much to do with temperature. Instead, studies show that sunlight is a key factor in shedding.
In temperate climates, cats start growing extra fur for heat when the autumn nights cut down on daylight. And in the spring, when the day lengthens, they shed to their light-weight summer coats.
We don’t really have those differences, with days being just an hour different over the year. However, as we’re in monsoon season, and there’s lots of rain, Target has been huddled under the blankets and spending less time in his sun puddles. I think it’s triggered a situation where he’s walking about in a cloud of fuzz.
So, it’s more than likely that my Target has a hairball. In the past, Target has hacked a bit and then trotted over to the rug and thrown up. Fur balls aren’t round, they’re thin and hairy and slimy, but they’re easily recognisable.
Usually, I’m delighted he’s gotten rid of it – and also mystified why he can’t do it in the garden or even on the marble floor. The second he feels it come on, he rushes over to the rug and heaves. I’ve talked to him about it but somehow it makes cat-sense to hurl on carpet.
So yesterday, I was resigned to putting the rug into the wash but Target hacked without result. This morning, he was still at it.
If a hairball doesn’t come up, it has to be encouraged to go out the other end. There are lots of hairball remedies around but as it’s a matter of “oiling it through”, I go straight for the tinned tuna in oil.
Tuna for humans is generally not good for cats, and oil isn’t really recommended either, but a teaspoon of the stuff every now and again in a medicinal way is OK. Also, my boy loathes all the commercial products we’ve ever offered but he’s a beast for tinned tuna.
To make absolutely certain we get a good result, I have also washed the living room rug. It came off the line an hour ago, and is lying in the living room, white stripes shining.
There’s no way a self-respecting cat can walk past that rug and not hurl up a hairball. At least, I hope so.