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What’s up with cat hair balls?

Dear Cecil:

When I pet my girlfriend's cat I'm left with a layer of cat hairs on my hand. She (the cat) always seems to be shedding. How can the thing stand to have all those hairs in its mouth when it grooms itself with its tongue? The thought of it makes me gag; why doesn't the cat? Is this some kind special adaptive behavior? Should I learn a Heimlich maneuver for cats just in case?

John J., Baltimore

Cecil replies:

House cats are always shedding, they do gag (after a fashion) on all the hair they insist on swallowing, and if it weren’t for the legions of humans willing to bail them out of the jams they perpetually get themselves into, the whole feline race would have perished long ago, and good riddance.

As your girlfriend can doubtless tell you, cats periodically regurgitate things called hair balls, which look like tiny hot dogs made of damp felt. These are made of hair the cat has accumulated in its stomach. Cat apologists claim hair balls are indeed an adaptive mechanism, the theory being that cats in the wild protect their stomachs by wrapping hair around bones, claws, and other indigestible components of their lunches, which they subsequently expectorate. Clearly, however, this is just a rationalization for a peculiarly repulsive habit.

Sometimes the hair balls work their way from the stomach into the intestine, where they get stuck, causing the cat untold gastric distress. The only cure is for the cat’s owner to administer an intestinal lubricant. Cats thus have the distinction of being the only animal species ecologically dependent on an allegedly superior race (e.g., us) to save it from itself. And humans think the domesticated animal in the house is the cat.

Cecil Adams

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