Not Just for Cats Anymore
That's right. Hairballs are not just cat fancy. Cows get them, too. So do goats and other cud-chewers. (Note to self: remember "cud-chewer" for the next time I need a really good insult.)
People can get hairballs, though it's not common, and we can't expel them as easily as a cat. In fact, we can't expel them at all. Hair cannot be digested or passed by the human gastrointestinal tract, nor can it be vomited up. When a hairball gets large enough to block things up, surgery is often the only way to get it out.
More Than Just Hair
When is a hairball not a hairball? When it's made of something else, of course. Doctors call a mass of stuff that gets stuck in the gut a bezoar (say "BEE-zor"). And each type of bezoar has a specific name. Oh, yes, there are types. Five of 'em:
- Trichobezoar - hairball (Think: what's left in your shower drain after your shower, only bigger. Much, much bigger.)
- Phytobezoar - ball of non-digestable food parts, like celery, grape skins, saurkraut, or gum. (Interestingly, a new medical treatment for this particular bezoar is meeting with some success: ingesting Coca-Cola in a prescribed manner. Yep. It seems the carbonic and phosphoric acids in this popular soft drink can dissolve some phytobezoars, if they're not a serious case.)
- Diospyrobezoar - specialty phytobezoars made of persimmon parts. (I've never eaten a persimmon. Now, I probably never will.)
- Pharmacobezoar - formed from amassed pill capsules
- Lactobezoar - mass of undigested milk, most commonly found in pre-term babies on highly concentrated formula
Middle Ages Snake Oil Salesmen?
Though most of us wrinkle our nose and let out an involuntary "Ewwwww" when we think of hairballs, people haven't always thought they were cringe-worthy. Let's do a bit of connect-the-dots, and you'll see how.
- First dot: the word "bezoar" comes from the Persian word pâdzahr, which means "protection from poison."
- Second dot: The Middle East - which includes what was then known as Persia - introduced 11th century Europe to ground up animal hairballs (a.k.a. bezoars), which were believed to cure poisoning, epilepsy, and the plague. In fact, bezoars remained a popular medicinal remedy right up through the 18th century.
- Third dot: China has used cow bezoars for 2,000+ years, most notably to treat diseases of the mouth. (Is it me, or has China done just about everything well before everyone else? I guess when a culture has been around as long as China's has, they have a lot of "been there, done that" moments.)
So. Bezoars as medicine. If I follow this correctly, stuff is put in the mouth - that may or may not be food - and is swallowed. The may-or-may-not-be-food gets stuck in the gut. This continues until the accumulated may-or-may-not-be-food is compacted and has to be removed from the gut (one way or another). Then, the may-or-may-not-be-food (which is now a bezoar) is dried out, ground up, and put back in a mouth - yours, to be precise. All to make you feel better.
I'll never understand medicine.
And now go forth, secure in the knowledge that - cat owner or no - you are truly Hairball Aware.
Note: The source below has interesting information on hairballs, but be aware that there are photos of actual hairballs from both animals and people. At the bottom of the page are three photos of a surgery that show removal of a rather large hairball from a person. Please use discretion before sharing this one with the kiddos, or if you are in any way squeamish.
National Museum of Health and Medicine Online Exhibit: "Hairballs: Myths and Realities behind some Medical Curiosities"