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7 Facts About Hairballs

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April 26 is National Hairball Awareness Day. To celebrate, we've hacked up a few facts about everyone's least favorite cat treat. 

1. It's hairballs. Trichobezoars, if you're nasty.

A hairball by any other name is still gross. In this case, the scientific term is trichobezoar. The root, trich, is Greek for "hair." A bezoar is any mass found in the stomach or intestines. It comes from the Persian word for "antidote." 

Animal hairballs were once thought to cure epilepsy, the plague, and poisoning. (But alas, have never been aphrodisiacs.) During the Middle Ages, hairballs were even set in gold. In 2011, jewelry designer Heidi Abrahamson created cat hair jewelry for Modern Cat founder Kate Benjamin to celebrate National Hairball Awareness Day. The hair for these accessories was shed, not vomited, but it still pulls off that "Is this art, or is it gross?" look.

2. Some cats are hairball-ier than others.

When they're not eating, sleeping, or starring in Internet videos, cats like to groom. A lot. Hairballs happen when indigestible hair is swallowed and builds up in the stomach. In a healthy cat, hair passes through the digestive tract just fine and reappears later in the litter box. But sometimes the hair forms a mass that has to be regurgitated. Thanks to the esophagus, hairballs usually look like tubes of hair, not balls.

All cats groom, but not all cats get hairballs. Obviously, long-haired cats have more hair to swallow, so they're more likely to have a hack attack. Kittens don't really get hairballs, either. In addition to having less fur, they don't groom themselves as thoroughly. So which of your cats is responsible for that mysterious hairball on your bedroom floor? Blame the older, more fastidious one.

Or your pet lion. Lion hairballs are especially furr-ocious.

3. Hairballs are seasonal.

Flowers in bloom, chirping birds, retching cats—they're all signs of spring. Hairballs are especially common as cats shed their winter coats.

4. Healthy cats have one to two hairballs ... a year.

"The bottom line about hairballs is they are not normal," says Dr. Jane Brunt, a feline veterinarian and executive director of the CATalyst Council. "The cat has developed a digestive tract that can handle normal amounts of fur without a problem. Even long-haired cats should not develop more than one or two hairballs a year.”

And don't assume all cat coughing or vomiting can be blamed on hairballs. It could be a sign of another medical issue, like an allergy or skin or intestinal disorder.

5. Hairballs today, gone tomorrow.

More than two hairballs a year is cause for concern. But don't worry: There are a number of remedies out there. Many hairball-fighting cat treats contain flavored indigestible mineral oil or petroleum jelly, which keeps everything lubricated. Some cat owners skip the fancy stuff and just put Vaseline on their kitty's nose, so he or she will lick it off. Switching to a high-fiber cat food is also helpful. You can do it yourself by feeding your cat canned pumpkin.

But food's not everything. Brushing your cat or seeking professional grooming help also makes a big difference. Dr. Brunt suggests using brushing as a reward. “It has two positive outcomes," she says. “First, your cat will have a lovely coat when properly brushed, and second, you may prevent your cat from becoming overweight if you are using brushing as a reward rather than treats.”If you're really feeling ambitious, you can even try this...

6. Where there's a mammal, there's hair. And where there's hair, there's hairballs.

Hairballs aren't just for cats. Cows and rabbits are especially prone to them, but their bodies aren't designed to vomit them up. They often go undiscovered until an animal's untimely death. Talk about a bad hair day.

Humans also get hairballs. People with trichotillomania, the compulsion to pull out their hair, sometimes experience trichophagia, the compulsion to eat hair. Trichobezoars can cause severe stomach pain. Sometimes hairballs grow so big over the years that they extend beyond the stomach into the colon, a rare intestinal condition called Rapunzel Syndrome. Trust us, it's one fairytale no one wants to comes true.

7. These hairballs are nothing to cough at.

If a hairball gets too big, it may require surgical removal. In January 2012, a British cat named Gemma went under the knife when a tumor the "size of two cricket balls" prevented her from eating. But it wasn't a tumor. (Please read that in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.) It was a five-inch wide hairball that weighed 7.5 ounces and, incidentally, looked like a newborn puppy.

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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