Every cat owner knows the sound. That hacking, retching noise that sounds almost like your cat is about to turn inside out. First-time pet parents may find the experience so disturbing that they call the veterinarian to find out what’s going on. A few minutes after the coughing starts, a smelly, slimy tube-shaped lump of fur appears on your favorite rug or freshly cleaned laundry, and your cat walks off like nothing happened, leaving you to clean up the aftermath.
What are hairballs?
When cats groom themselves, they naturally ingest hair as part of the process. Their tongues are rough, which makes it possible to get their coats clean and soft, but it also captures loose hairs, which they swallow. Although the majority of the hair is expelled in the cat’s feces, occasionally a ball of hair will form in the gastrointestinal tract. In most cases, when the ball of hair becomes too large to pass through the digestive tract, cats will simply vomit up the wad of hair instead. Scientifically, this is known as a trichobezoar, but people usually refer to the sodden lump of bullet-shaped fur as a hairball.
Hairballs aren’t typically something to be worried about, but they should be watched. It’s not unusual for healthy cats to produce a hairball every week or two. This is especially true for fastidious cats that groom themselves frequently. Those with long, thick fur or those who shed frequently are also more likely to develop hairballs than other felines. While the coughing and retching sounds distressing, in most cases, it is harmless.
There are times, however, when frequent hairballs can signal a deeper problem so it’s important to note when and how often your cat is coughing hairballs up. Frequent hairballs can be indicative of gastrointestinal issues such as inflammatory bowel syndrome and frequent coughing, with or without producing hairballs, may indicate asthma, respiratory infection, or polyps. Occasionally, hairballs can become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially blocking both digestion and blood flow. Large hairballs that are lodged in the digestive system may need to be removed by a veterinarian. Untreated hairballs that remain in the intestinal tract may become fatal.
When to Worry
While hairballs are usually just a natural part of being a cat, there are situations where medical intervention is required. If your cat shows any of the following symptoms, contact your veterinarian:
- Ongoing retching or dry heaving that doesn’t produce a hairball
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms could indicate a life-threatening blockage has occurred. In many cases, your veterinarian will be able to prescribe a hairball remedy for your cat. Hairball remedies are usually made of something like petroleum jelly and come in flavors to entice your cat to ingest them. The jelly then helps to lubricate the digestive tract, allowing the mass to slide through. Occasionally, the mass of hair will become so lodged in the gut that surgery is required to remove it.
One of the easiest ways to prevent hairballs is by re-evaluating what you feed your pet. Choosing a high-quality diet high in omega fatty acids and vitamin E can reduce overall shedding. Adding a little bit of plain pumpkin to your cat’s diet also adds fiber, to help keep things moving smoothly through the digestive tract, and zinc, which can improve your cat’s coat health. Cat foods specially formulated to reduce hairballs not only include omegas and other vitamins and minerals, but they often also include ingredients with additional fiber such as pumpkin.
Grooming your cat regularly will also help to reduce the number of hairballs that form. Brushing your cat removes much of the loose fur that would otherwise be swallowed. There are also wipes and sprays designed to reduce the amount of hair that your feline family member swallows that may help prevent hairballs. As these products may be ingested during grooming it’s important to check with your veterinarian before choosing one of these products to ensure it is the right choice for your pet.
Don’t have time to groom your cat as regularly as you’d like? Set up a visit with The Comforted Kitty and we’ll play with your cat and brush it too!
Some cats are more prone to hairballs because groom themselves more than is strictly necessary. This kind of overgrooming can sometimes even lead to hair loss and skin sores if not attended to. Overgrooming may be related to medical issues such as fleas or food allergies, so an important first step in addressing these problems is to enlist your veterinarian’s assistance. Overgrooming not caused by medical issues is most often rooted in stress. Identifying and addressing the cause of the stress will reduce your pet’s urge to groom.
While you may not be able to completely eliminate the formation of hairballs, there are many steps you can take to reduce their size and frequency. Special hairball remedies are available to help move along hairballs already in the system and simply brushing your cat more often will reduce the number of hairballs that are able to form.