Message Number: YG1974 | New FHL Archives Search
From: RRC
Date: 2001-04-01 09:29:00 UTC
Subject: Re: Sukie on Furballs

Identifying hair from old scat has long been a common zoologist's and
zooarchaeologist's tool, and I have done it plenty times myself. Hair is
very resistant to digestion and hair passing out the digestive system is
more-or-less unchanged. I know of no study which has documented hair
diagenesis (diagenesis is a type of decomposition) from recovered
hairballs and I have done nothing along those lines, so I can't say how
much the hair is changed from long-term exposure to stomach acids.
Nonetheless, hair is easily distinguished from artificial fibers.

But I don't think I would consider synthetic fibers to be the culprit in
the formation of hairballs. I would hypothesize the real problem is a
lack of bulk which would—in the wild—"grab" the hair and transport it
out the back end. This indigestible bulk would include undigested skin
and other tissue, bits of bone, fragments of undigested plant material
(from the gut of the prey, and that which was accidentally and
purposefully ingested), and other bits of indigestible debris which
would be swallowed during the typical consumption of prey. In wild
animals, this bulk typically helps move hairs through the digestive system.

In pets, especially those eating basically homogenized foods (many dry
foods are made from ground, powdered, or finely divided ingredients), I
think the particles are either so small or so widely dispersed that
their effectiveness in reducing hair is diminished. The cure is to
periodically feed doses of a sticky petroleum product (which is not
digested), which traps the hair and moves it through. It is usually
effective, but I have long wondered about HOW effective it is once the
hairball has been formed.

I have mentioned before that I have noticed a large number of ferrets
which have died from adrenal disease also have hairballs. I have
hypothesized they form at least partially from grooming; as they lose
their hair, there is more to accidentally ingest. But in longer
consideration of the problem, I also wonder if diet doesn't also play a
part. One of the things a lot of people do when their adrenal ferrets
reach the terminal stages of life is start to feed a lot of foods which
are very watery, fine grained and slick. Things like duck soup, watered
down chicken baby food, and the like. I suspect it is the combination of
the two which might be driving the high rates of hairballs I have
discovered in adrenal ferrets.

My own ferrets are hairball free and have always been so (I wish I could
say the same for my cat, who is now 15 and doing an impression of Ronald
Reagan with kidney problems). While I do feed dry ferret chows (mostly
Totally Ferret, but also a mix of various brands so they do not become
olfactory imprinted on a single dry food source), I also feed a
considerable amount of chicken, which includes skin and bone. I also
feed them a couple of mice each week, fed whole (purchased from a
reptile house and supplied frozen. I thaw them and nuke them to 100 F
before serving). In the last 7+ years, I have lost 18 ferrets, and have
paid for 27 surgeries. Not a single hairball in sight.

One of the things I have done with my own ferrets is to use them for
some minor research on the diagenesis of bone. In zooarchaeological
circles, there has long been the idea that small bits of bone are due to
human attempts of get more nutrition from the food (called resource
intensification). I was the first person who systematically disproved
the idea, and one of the ways I did it was look at boiled bone and
compare it to digested bone. My late Stella, Moose and Foster (among
others) were fed chicken bones and whole mice. I recovered their scats,
washed the organics from them, then inspected the bone bits under an
electron microscope. ALL the bones had hair surrounding them, even
penetrating the various canals. I had noticed the same thing in every
piece of recovered bone from mink, coyote, tiger, puma, African lion,
wolf, domestic dog, and even hyena. Also, when washing the scats from
all these animals, I found that in many cases, the passed hair formed
small clumps with an organic center. These organic centers appeared to
be undigested skin or tendon. I strongly suspect that in carnivores, the
passage of bone fragments and undigested bits of organics are the
mechanism by which hair is removed from the digestive system.

I am the first to admit this sample is far too small to mean much of
anything other than perhaps suggesting a trend. There could be other
factors at work; my ferret free roam, so they don't perform extended
ritual grooming and other habits of boredom which might increase
hairballs in caged ferrets. Perhaps it is because I never leave food out
(except for sick ferrets) but only feed three times a day, and
periodically fast them for a day. Given some thinking time, I could come
up with other possibilities, but you get the idea that *I* consider the
data to be interesting, but perhaps not very complete at this time.

My point to you through this mini-dissertation is that I don't think the
problem is artificial fibers, but rather a lack of a mechanism which
helps the materials through the digestive tract. Perhaps the artificial
fibers could form the nucleus around which hair would stick, but I
honestly doubt if it would make much of a difference (the fibers are
smoother than hair, so slicker; not what I would suspect as being
something that might START a hairball). After all, hairballs are found
in a lot of animals who never come into contact with artificial fibers.
My guess is that a diet of food which either lacks sufficient
"stickiness" or has enough rough edges to grab the hairs and pull them
through is the REAL problem.

Sorry I can't give you better evidence, but I DO have a few hundred SEM
photos that I could post if you like cool close-ups of digested bone.
Sorry, I never took pictures of the hairs coming out; I was interested
in the diagenesis of the bone so I purposely removed them. But I did see
the hair. For a hundred bucks, I can wash a bone sample, degrease the
bone, degas it for a few days, coat it with gold, and take the pictures
(the cost is for a couple hours of SEM time; I get a special rate since
I can run the machine).

If you like, I can look at your hairballs and identify the fibers. It's
a piece of cake and I have the references and equipment at hand. My
technique would be different from yours; I would dissect the hairball by
dissolving the soluble organics which cement the material, then float
the hairs and fibers apart under distilled water. It would take a couple
of days. Then the hairs and fibers would be air dried (I'll bet a lot of
the kinkiness or curl would disappear). I'll take a few random samples
and count the hair and fibers and tell you the percentages. Take about a
week or so. But I have to tell you, even IF there are artificial fibers,
I think they are a symptom of the problem, not the cause.

Bob C

>Date: Fri, 30 Mar 2001 17:38:23 -0500
>From: Sukie Crandall <sukiecrandall@t...>
>Subject: (unknown)
>Okay, Joe sent one of the furballs home to me and I used my microscope.
>On first pulling the furball apart as gently as possible I compared
>it to some of Jumper's fur in the flea comb (both guard hairs and
>undercoat ones). The stuff in the furball was MOSTLY shorter,
>thinner in diameter, and kinkier. I do NOT know how much of that can
>be caused by stomach acid. Some of it was definitely fur like in the
>comb so doubt that threads in the same region would have some a lot
>altered and some not.
>They differed, too, from the fake fur in one of those bedsacks, but
>some of it was a dead-on match with the fake fur in two other
>bedsacks. In addition, some seemed to match closely to fake fleece
>lint pulled from a hammock.
>We already know that the fleece beds and fake fur beds do lose a lot
>of their fluff, especially, from what is found when cleaning is done.
>I have already begun lining beds with sheeting, and will do a few of
>those at every chance till all are done. The fleece ones that have
>soft outer sides will also get covers made for them.
It may not be the answer, but we have never had fur balls before in
>all of these years and we suddenly have two with large fur balls.
>That does not bode well, and if covers and linings might help then
>they are more than worth my time invested.
>Meanwhile, I wonder if any vets want to start looking at fibers in
>furballs to see what might and what might not be there?