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By Jeff Gammage
Inquirer Staff Writer

DAN Z. JOHNSON / Inquirer

Michelle Reale of Rydal with her Maine Coon Cat, Inky. She knows about hairballs. There's nothing quite like the sound of a hacking cat.

Nothing so distinctive, so dissonant, so, well, disgusting. Because if you're a cat owner, you know what comes next.

Hair balls - or trichobezoars, to the veterinarily inclined - rank among the most common ailments suffered by cats and, subsequently, by their owners.

"Usually you find them in the morning, with your bare feet," says Ed Zigon Jr., a lab technician who lives with six cats in Morrisville.

Felinophiles may want to be extra alert this morning, because today is National Hairball Awareness Day. Unless it was yesterday. There's some confusion about the date. No matter. For people who own cats - a third of all American households, half of those with two or more - hair balls are an issue that keeps coming up.

"He emits this big, whooping cough," says Michelle Reale of Rydal, describing the vocal stylings of her Maine coon cat, Inky. "It sounds like a baby with croup... . The first time, I thought he was dying. I picked him up. I was going to do the Heimlich maneuver."

National Hairball Awareness Day is one of the countless silly, so-called commemorations clogging the calendar. In May alone, the nation will celebrate Nutty Fudge Day, Tap Dance Day, and Sea Monkey Day, no doubt created by institutions dedicated to the sale of fudge, tap shoes, and small aquatic beasts.

Hill's Pet Nutrition Inc., a global pet-food supplier whose line happens to include Science Diet Hairball Control, is among those who have been promoting hair-ball awareness.

As if cat owners could somehow be unaware.

"They hunch their shoulders: 'Eck! Eck! Eck!,' " says Zigon, performing an uncannily accurate impersonation. "It's nature's way of purging their systems... . To them it's nothing. They walk away, 'I'm cool. No one saw me.' "

In the United States today, there are about 78 million owned cats, every one of which can be counted on to produce a soggy, cylindrical mass at the most inopportune moment - in front of company or wary children or on the new rug.:down:

The problem is, cats are too darn clean. They spend hours grooming themselves with their rough tongues, and fur collects in their digestive systems. Warm weather brings shedding season and more loose hair.

"Some cats occasionally bring up a little hair ball, and it's not an issue," says Dr. Mark Fox, of Glenside's Rau Animal Hospital. (No, Rau isn't named for the sound a cat makes, but for its founder.) However, Fox says, sometimes a blockage forms and can require surgery. The vomiting can be a sign of other conditions, such as an inflamed intestinal tract, or even a skin ailment that is causing the cat to groom overzealously.

The best care, Fox says, is regular brushing. Less fur on the cat means less fur in the cat.

Of course, it's not always easy to groom a cat. Reale, a library supervisor at Arcadia University, says her Inky is particularly irascible and arrogant, despising other cats, people, and, in particular, members of either species whom he perceives to be staring at him.

"He thinks he looks really cool, until he's whooping up a fur ball," Reale says. "He does a strange thing - he likes to hoard them. He carries them to this little bed he has downstairs, and then I'll collect them and throw them away."
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