Unless you don’t clean your home and are regularly licking your cats or are otherwise ingesting their fur, there should be no cause for concern.
Q: In one of your columns a few years ago, you commented on hairballs in humans (trichobezoars, I believe). Could you please provide that information again or perhaps more in-depth, updated information? We have indoor cats, and it just makes sense that we would acquire at least some sort of “hairballs,” too. Thank you so very much. I absolutely love your columns.
A: Unless you don’t clean your home and are regularly licking your cats or are otherwise ingesting their fur, I don’t believe you have any cause for concern.
Hairballs, also known as trichobezoars, are most commonly associated with cats. In humans, they are often the result of a disorder known as trichophagia (hair eating or chewing), which can occur with a mental disorder known as trichotillomania (hair pulling).
Trichotillomania is rare. Current estimates claim that about 1 percent to 4 percent of the U.S. population (between 3 million and 12 million people) is affected. It is characterized by an irresistible urge to pull the hair of the scalp, eyebrows or other areas of the body.
Signs/and symptoms of the conditions can include playing with the pulled-out hair, sparse or missing eyelashes or eyebrows, rubbing the pulled-out hair across the face or lips, patchy bald areas on the scalp or other areas of the body, and chewing or eating the pulled-out hair (trichophagia). It is this last symptom that can result in physical problems such as hairballs, which often take years to form and can obstruct the bowel and/or stomach, leading to vomiting, weight loss and even death. Other symptoms can result in embarrassment and emotional pain. Sufferers often go to great lengths to disguise bald areas, especially those of the scalp.
Treatment is available and typically involves a psychiatrist. A form of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavior therapy is considered to be an effective treatment. This can also be used with other types of therapy, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, which aids people in learning to accept their condition while also learning to avoid acting on the impulse to pull hair. Some physicians use antidepressants; however, they work best when combined with CBT. Side effects can be troublesome, and some users cannot tolerate them, so they are not typically prescribed.
People who chew or eat their hair are at risk of developing hairballs. These are most common in children and adolescents. To the best of my knowledge, the only treatment is surgery to remove the mass of tangled, knotted hair.
Write to Dr. Gott c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., 4th fl., New York NY 10016.