What to Do About Hacking Cats!

It appears I have neglected our furry feline friends as I review the different topics discussed over the last year. Therefore, today I feel compelled to discuss the ever-present concern about cats and hacking — why they do this and what are the causes are.  This topic comes up often in conversations with clients about their cats. It is never a fun one to discuss, since it can have some very undesirable side effects. The causes can vary, but a large percentage are related to excessive hair consumption associated with normal grooming behaviors.

A cat’s ability to groom themselves is an important trait to have. We are all amazed that they can get into something sticky and/or messy and after a few hours return to find everything cleaned up. Also being able to groom under their tail is an important attribute to have.  If your cat cannot clean under their tail or over the top of their back, it can indicate they are overweight or having arthritis, making it painful to reach those areas.  We also see cases where a kitten that was orphaned at an early age will not be the meticulous groomer that we would like. The grooming behaviors are learned from their mother at an early age, and if she is not present those kittens may never be good at self grooming.

If your cat is hacking there are important things to consider. We have a number of upper respiratory conditions that can cause drainage in the back of the throat which can lead to a hacking sound.  We have foreign body ingestion that can have a similar sound, but usually the continual attempt to dislodge the foreign body gives clues indicating the need to seek veterinary care.  We can have asthma-like symptoms that may have a hacking sound associated with environmental items such as smoke, dust, pollens, certain aerosol sprays, etc. The challenge is always to determine what the causes are and then work to treat or prevent them in the future. Most cats, if hacking is associated with hairballs, will eventually get the large, ugly, slimy, moist, tubular hairball vomited up. They may make one giant attempt to remove it or multiple attempts with small bile partially hair filled vomitus.

WHY do these hairballs occur? From my experience it appears that younger cats have more natural ability to keep the hair moving and not vomit up hairballs. Now, that also could be related to the increase in shedding as the cat ages, since we seem to be less likely to spend hours brushing and removing all the excess hair.  We have cats that groom not only themselves but other cats in the household, thereby increasing the amount of hair they take in daily. Bathing cats can help remove unwanted hair as well as doing a “Lion Cut” on long haired cats to help prevent matts.

We know that diet can affect the hair coat and increase or decrease the amount of shedding. If you are interested in finding a diet that helps decrease the amount of shedding, speak with your veterinarian. Many diets are not nutritionally complete and therefore skin and hair conditions are affected. When changing a diet it will take at least 6 months to notice a difference in the hair coat and shedding. Diets that indicate “hairball formula” often times will have an increase in fiber and/or omega 3 & 6 nutrients. These ingredients can have a beneficial affect on moving the hair through the intestinal tract and preventing hairballs.   The debate on whether canned or dry diets are better for cats continues, with many feeling a combination of the two is best not only for hairballs but the increase in moisture content as well.

WHAT should you do when your cat vomits a hairball? First, many homes are multi-cat households so you must determine who. This can be difficult, so sometimes it involves separation and evaluating eating habits and stool habits to determine who may be responsible. If that is not possible, it will not hurt a cat to be treated for hairballs if you decide to treat everyone. Often times cats having issues with hair will also have abnormal stools. The stools will be more round and small in size. They should be more like a “tootsie roll” if they have a healthy digestive tract. I realize it is not fun to evaluate stool, but one can learn a lot from what that stool looks like. Once you have determined who is responsible, take a good look at the cat’s hair coat. Are there matts, rough and unkept areas of body, shiny or dull coat, and excessive amounts of hair removed with petting, bathing, and/or brushing? If you see a number of these conditions it would be wise to speak with your veterinarian about the skin and hair coat. It is an important organ just like the liver or kidneys and needs special attention as well.  If the coat and skin appear to be healthy, then you need to consider ways to prevent hairballs.

Hairball prevention is best treated with diets that are complete and well balanced as mentioned earlier.  You may pay more for these diets, but it will save you money in the prevention of hairballs as well as other health concerns that develop over the lifetime of your cat related to poor quality nutrition. There are a number of lubricants that can be used to treat hairballs. The use of these products will help keep the hair moving in the digestive tract and avoid the “hacking up” of a hairball. The recommendation is to use daily for 3-5 days after a hairball has been presented and then use daily, every other day, biweek, or weekly as needed to keep them from developing. There is no exact science in these preparations. Many factors affect how often you should use them. For instance if someone bathes and combs their cat regularly, they will have less need to use the lubricants for hairballs. If the cat grooms themselves and other cats in the home then they may need it daily. The goal is to use these products as often as necessary to prevent hairballs.

I have often suggested adding canned food into a cats diet if hairballs are a concern. The additional moisture and oils helps lubricate the intestinal tract and keep the hair moving. Since elderly cats are more prone to hairballs, the additional calories daily can help weight loss issues and dental concerns as well. Some cats will refuse canned food since they are very cautious when something new is presented to them. It is important to warm the canned food if they do not like canned food after it has been refrigerated.   Purchase the proper sized can to avoid refrigeration after 4 days or more. Many canned diets become stale and undesirable to the cat when open for extended periods. If you find your cat refuses the canned food initially, you can cut back on the volume of dry offered each day to encourage them to eat the new diet. Mix a small amount with some of their dry kibble but make certain to discard any uneaten food since it will not keep until the next meal. Introduction of canned food at a young age can make it easier to offer canned food later in life.

Start early in life with combing and bathing your cat. A kitten can learn to tolerate baths and combing much easier than teaching an older cat to appreciate these events. The following video is Hemmingway, our Winterset Veterinary Center cat, who was brushed early on in his life since we knew he would be a long haired cat. As you will see by the video, he loves his grooming time and purrs during the entire session. It is so much easier to groom a cat that is content than one that is agitated or angry. Make certain you purchase a COMB if you own a long haired cat. Brushes have a tendency to brush the top of the cat but not remove the thick under coat that needs to be removed. The fuminator and zoom groom are two products that can be helpful in removing excess hair from cats.

Click to see video: Hemmingway at Winterset Veterinary Center

A professional groomer is trained to shave cats that have continual issues with hairballs or owners that want to reduce the household hair issues. We call it a “Lion Cut”. They have a very short body and a mane around the face and a tuft on the tail. Some of these cats are groomed like this twice per year and others are done annually depending on the owner. Often times the cats are sedated for this special cut to avoid cutting their extremely thin skin and preventing injury to the groomer.

Hacking cats can mean different things at different times. Always be aware of their eating and drinking habits since that can also give you insight to what may be causing the problem. The more information you can share with your veterinarian about your cat, the more they will be able to do to solve your “hacking” issue. Have a wonderful July 4th.

Is this all MY hair?


Years ago when I started to realize that all living beings have a time to live and a time to die, I started to process the loss of my pet cats, pet dogs, and the runty baby pigs that I so desperately tried to save. I would shed tears as I laid them into my pet cemetery behind the old garage. I would fashion a cross out of a few sticks that I could tie together with some twine. I collected large rocks to place around the location the body lay so not to disturb this ground the next time I had an informal burial. During all of my years I never had to say a forever good bye to any of my horses for one reason or another. That changed today.

In 2004 we moved to the Winterset area after over 20 years of marriage. During this time we were never able to live where we could have horses so after our 4 children were well on their way of becoming able to care for horses, we bought Junior. Junior was a 12 year old gelding that had belonged to a young lady going off to college and in need of a car. We met him in a pasture along I80 at the Menlo exit. Our oldest daughter, Jaclyn, had decided she wanted to have a horse that she could learn to barrel race on. We had already purchased one other horse named Morgan, that was hers for trail riding and he needed a companion. Since it is never fun to trail ride by oneself, Junior was the perfect fit. Both of these boys, I considered gentle giants. I never had to be concerned about the safety of our kids while spending time with them in the pasture or riding. Junior was never out of control when entering the arena to start his race. He was a proven pole and barrel horse that always took care of his rider. Jaclyn’s first year in 4-H she won both the barrels and poles in her intermediate age group. We spent many hours riding these two boys on our property through the years and he became a member of the family just like any dog or cat we had ever brought home. I know over the years he had heard more secrets and stories than he will ever let on as our kids grew into teenagers and young adults. He was always willing to be ridden with or without a saddle. He never showed any ounce of aggression or anger no matter what was going on around him. As with all good barrel and pole horses the years of racing took a toll on his legs. We retired him from racing and he became a second trail horse and a loving member of the Nielsen family. With “natural” hoof trimming he has done extremely well through his senior years. We always allowed him to run free when moving them between pastures over the years and were amazed at how he would kick up his hooves and run like the wind with his tail held high and mane blowing in the wind. It was always one of my favorite things to watch and will be the way I remember our Junior.

I reminisce about all that our kids have learned by having horses. The following link has been special to me since I have daughters that have shared my love for horses.

Because My Daughter Grew Up With Horses – Breyer Horse

We have so many wonderful memories of time spent with Junior that will give us great joy in this time of sorrow. It is never easy saying good-bye but when the suffering was great, and the twinkle was gone, it was time.

As a veterinarian, I am so accustomed to saving our furry friends that when it comes to my own family from 4 legged to 2 legged and I cannot stop the pain and suffering it takes on a whole new meaning. These moments tug and pull at my heart and mind and the tears come flooding through. Age is just something that I cannot turn back the clock on. Medical conditions start to deteriorate the body and sometimes, our pets show no response to treatment. When this happens there is no hope for quality of life. I want to protect my children from feeling this loss but I know that is not possible. If we have pets, there will be pain when these decisions must be made. There is such a mix of emotions surrounding this decision, from the peace that I know has come to Junior as he took his final breath, to the tears of sadness from my myself and my family as we said goodbye to Junior, to the joy of having him in our lives for the last 13 years, for the loss that Morgan has as he searches the hillside for his companion of 13 years. Death is difficult no matter what the circumstances are. In that circle of life as every living soul lives and dies we must find the peace within ourselves to be grateful for the years, days, hours, and minutes that we have shared together. Rest in peace Junior. You are forever in our hearts and minds.

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill

is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.

For here, between this world and the next

is a place where heavenly horses find rest.

And on this beautiful green land JUNIOR will play.

He will have no pain, God takes it all away.

Junior will trot through the grass, without a care,

until one day he will stop, whinny, and sniff the air.

Suddenly he will see you, as you run to your old friend

One person and one horse, together once again.

And the sadness that you felt while you were apart

has turned to joy once more in both of your hearts.

Spring Has Come…

With springtime comes many outdoor activities. We are seeing people snap photos of their morel mushrooms, play outdoors sports, do yard work, and of course, head out into the great outdoors to spend time with their pets.   Along with all of these outdoor activities we need to be aware and attentive to the danger of wood ticks during the springtime. Numerous people and pets are being diagnosed with tick borne diseases. My focus this month will be on some important information about ticks and how to protect yourself and your pets.

Growing up on an Iowa farm, our dog had more ticks than I could count on any given day. It was a job to check the dog over daily and remove any ticks that were found. The number of products available back in the 70’s to use as prevention was limited and so every pet and person got a good tick check at the end of the day. We never heard about Lyme Disease or Erlichiosis in those days. We just knew that one large tick leads to many baby ticks and did not want that to happen so we flushed the ticks or squashed them. Today between social media, television, friendly conversations, etc., it is rare not to find some new information about tick diseases or hear about another person diagnosed with a tick borne disease. These diseases are in every state except Hawaii. It is important to educate yourself on the best way to protect your family and your pets.

I first want to discuss Lyme disease in dogs. Most people are familiar with Lyme disease and know that a very small deer tick transmits this disease to its host. What is not talked about is that mice, turkeys, birds are also hosts for the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi that deer tick transmit. Therefore any person could be at risk for contacting Lyme disease no matter where they live or play.   Deer ticks also have a very active stage in the fall. This is not common knowledge and therefore people that hunt and hike in the fall are not protecting themselves.

Dogs have some great advantages over humans when it comes to protecting themselves against Lyme disease.   There are vaccines that can protect our canine friends from Lyme disease and if vaccinated prior to exposure they have greater than 95% success. The first time it is given there is a series of 2 vaccinations and then it is an annual shot after that. Puppies can be vaccinated as young as 12 weeks of age. Discuss the risk your pet may have to Lyme disease with your veterinarian and see if you should start this immunization today.

We have had flea and tick products for many years that when applied topically would prevent many ticks from attaching and taking a blood meal.   Then about 3 years ago some oral products came to the market that gave 100% body coverage but do require a bite for a blood meal. So the debate still continues, bite or no bite, which is better. I believe that both products when used properly and used 9-10 months out of the year, can do a great job at preventing tick infestations. Now you will notice that I suggested 9-10 months out of the year. In Madison County, we have seen some extremely mild winters where we get minimal snow and often have days during December – February where we are above freezing. It has been discovered that ticks will still be out “questing” for their host even at freezing temperatures if the ground is not covered with snow.   For that reason, you must consider protecting your pet longer and/or consider year round prevention.   Many infections of Lyme Disease will not be discovered until 4-6 months after the tick bite. This is related to the Borrelia life cycle once it is injected into the host.   Dogs do not get a bullseye skin rash so the first indication your dog has been infected may be fever, extreme joint pain, lethargy, and no appetite. Exposure to Lyme disease can be diagnosed with a simple laboratory test done in the clinic. These tests can also indicate exposure to Erlichiosis and Anaplasmosis which are two other tick borne diseases. We have been seeing many positive test results with Erlichiosis and last month I had my first positive Anaplasmosis in a dog that moved here from Wisconsin. The owner indicated 4 years ago the dog was ill and treated for Anaplasmosis. It was still positive when it presented to Winterset Veterinary Center for a routine screening. The dog is no longer clinically ill but may always be positive on the screening test. Anaplasmosis has often been considered a disease of the South, but this dog had never left Wisconsin.

Erlichiosis and Anaplasmosis both cause similar symptoms to Lyme’s disease. We do not have any vaccines to protect against these two diseases, so your best protection would be tick control and checking for ticks at the end of the day.   We do not know how long a tick must be attached to transmit these organisms. For Borrelia that transmits Lyme Disease we know it is more then 24 hours, but the research is still ongoing for the other two diseases. Researchers know it is quicker than Borrelia but is it 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc hours we still do not know. We are also aware that once positive for any one of these tick borne diseases, treatment or no treatment, they will most likely remain positive for the rest of their life. There is concern now that some of our joint disease issues may stem from a chronic (long term) infection of tick borne diseases. These organisms can also infect the kidney which can be detrimental as the pet ages. It has been shown that infection with Erlichiosis can produce clinical symptoms much faster than Lyme Disease. Therefore it is important to remove ticks quickly to prevent transmission of the bacteria.

Lyme Disease was first diagnosed in Lyme, Connecticut in the mid 1970’s and a scientist, Willy Burgdorfer, in 1981 made the connection between deer tick and the disease. The first dog case of Lyme disease in Madison County was diagnosed by Dr. Jim at Winterset Veterinary Center in 1989. Since that time cases have been increasing in humans and animals.   This link gives information about Lyme Disease: History of Lyme Disease | Bay Area Lyme Foundation

The following link indicates that Erlichiosis has now been discovered in Minnesota and Wisconsin in humans and will only be a matter of time before Iowa is on the map. We are finding Erlichiosis in Iowa dogs so I am certain it will be diagnosed in humans very soon.


If we know a dog has any one of these tick borne diseases the use of antibiotics can knock down the clinical symptoms. The problem is knowing how long to treat and if the bacteria will actually be cleared from the body. Studies have shown that even with treatment the organism may remain in the body and surface at times of stress such as pregnancy or treatment with immunosuppressive medications. This is what makes these diseases such a mystery to treat. We are still learning new information daily on the life cycle of these tick borne diseases.

So if you are headed out to enjoy the great outdoors, please take precautions not only for your pet but yourself as well. This is the time of year when ticks are out in full force and it only takes one tick to start a long illness that may always plague you or your pet.

Do not take a chance on this because it is a life changing disease and anyone who has contacted it will tell you……I wish I would have known then what I know now about these tick borne diseases. Their lives will never be the same. Learn from their words of wisdom and take all the precautions you can and protect your pets with vaccinations, flea and tick products, and regular tick checks.

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