Message Number: YG2005 | New FHL Archives Search
From: Sukie Crandall
Date: 2001-04-01 20:29:00 UTC
Subject: Re: Sukie on Furballs

Bob wrote:
>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.

That is useful to know. The section of the furball I examined under
the microscope did have some things that looked like fur (except for
color since I lot of the things were stained brown) -- some were like
guard hairs and some were like undercoat hairs. Most of what was in
there was actually closer to the two types of bedding (one of the
fake fur types and the fleece) in kinkiness, thinner diameter, and
shorter length. If fur remains largely unchanged by the stomach acid
then I really have to wonder even more seriously how much of a part
the bedding played in this particular furball, esp. since within the
content there were recognizable hairs as a minor component.

> 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.

I am not sure how much of the fabric is natural and how much
artificial, but would like to know how to tell fibers apart from fur.
Still have most of the furball here so can examine further with
guidelines. If you have the time and can post such information that
would be helpful.

>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.

On that score I have wondered about insect exoskeletons, as in giving
meal "worms", as a possible diet change if they take to them. Any
data on if those might be useful as bulk?

Our's do get powdered bone when I boil down a chicken and then powder
those epiphases which are calcified enough to be hard, but not so
fully calcified that they form splinters. I simply am not wild about
what happens when a diet containing larger bits of bone goes wrong.

>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

So had our's for almost 19 years till recently, then we suddenly had
two with furballs -- our first ever. It could merely be coincidence,
but it is a startling change from the previous long experience.

>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.

Ah, now, skin, tendon, cartilage, etc. we DO give as is (but cooked).

> 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.

Our's have about 12 to 14 hours every day without caging, and the
cage is a tall one with 6 levels. We figure that if ferrets are like
humans then exercise is absolutely essential to good health.

We find that grooming is something that our's use more a cultural
cement than as a way around boredom -- rather like primates use it.
Perhaps your household's culture differs from our's in that regard.
One large influence on that aspect here has been Scooter who is true
grooming fanatic. (It's always interesting to see what sorts of
social influences on the group one individual can have.)

>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 the ones that seem to make up the majority of the furball; those
are KINKY, thin, and short when seen under the microscope, not
slicker than hairs...

> 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.

Except that if that clearly were the cause we'd expect to have had
furballs in the many years before, give that the diet is pretty well
of the same general type and range, so it's certainly not clear-cut.

>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.

How about if you do part of it, and I save a bit for a different
approach in case that option pans out? I got only one of the
furballs. How large a sample do you need?