Cats are known for being clean animals, and part of this is due to their fastidious grooming. Every time your cat licks himself, however, loose hairs get swallowed. Hairs aren't digestible, but they usually just get passed through your cat's stomach and intestines.
Sometimes -- in long-haired cats during periods of heavy shedding, or in cats that groom other cats or themselves excessively -- the cat swallows enough hair to form a wad in his stomach. These wads of hair are ejected in a long, moist tube known as a trichobezoar, or "hairball." Kittens don't usually get hairballs, but they're common in older cats as they learn how to groom themselves better.
A hairball on occasion is normal, but hairballs several times a week or even daily are a problem. It's also an issue if your cat is having a hard time bringing up a hairball. Hairballs usually come up in one or two tries so if your cat continues retching, you should take him to the veterinarian. Hairballs that won't pass can also cause lethargy, diarrhea, defecation problems, a bloated abdomen or a loss of appetite in a cat. Occasionally, hairballs can get so bad that they block his throat, stomach or intestines, resulting in death. If there's enough hair to cause a blockage, your cat may need surgery. Hairballs the size of baseballs have been removed from cats' stomachs.
Like so many other maladies in cats, prevention is the best cure. Read on to find out what you can do to keep your cat from getting hairballs.
Preventing Hairballs in Your Cat
There are several things that you can do to prevent your cat from getting hairballs in the first place. Regular grooming, even just a little bit every few days, removes the loose hairs that cause hairballs. Every loose hair you brush or comb off your cat is one less he can swallow. Get your cat used to being brushed as soon as he becomes a part of your family, and grooming will be easier for both of you. If grooming is too difficult, especially if you have a long-haired cat, consider getting him professionally groomed.
A small amount of intestinal lubrication will help hairballs make their way through the digestive system instead of coming back up. Commercial hairball remedies are usually made of a nondigestible oil or jelly such as petroleum jelly, with a feline-pleasing flavor like malt or tuna. While petroleum jelly is probably the cheapest and most effective treatment, it's also the most difficult to convince a cat to swallow. Follow the directions on the label carefully; usually, they suggest giving your cat a daily dose for a few days if he is having a lot of hairballs, then dosing him about once a week as a preventive measure. If you give your cat a hairball remedy regularly, he may never suffer from hairballs (and you may never suffer cleaning one up).
Making some adjustments to your cat's diet can also help prevent hairballs. Too many snacks, too little fiber and not enough exercise may sound like what the doctor told you at your last checkup, but it's equally sound advice for your cat. A hairball is a problem because it just sits there. Unless you get your cat's system moving a little more vigorously, hair will continue to collect, form hairballs, and be thrown up on your best rug or next to the bed for you to find with your bare feet in the middle of the night! A higher fiber diet, fewer empty-calorie snacks and a little more exercise may be all it takes to lick a hairball problem. Many cat food companies make special hairball formulas for cats that suffer from hairballs; ask your vet if one of them would be right for your cat.
- ASPCA. "Cat Care: Hairballs." ASPCA. 2011. (April 20, 2011)http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/hairball.aspx
- Eldredge, Debra M., et al. "Cat Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook." Howell Book House. Dec. 10, 2007.
- Foster, Race. "Hairballs Cause Vomiting, not Coughing." Pet Education. 2011. (April 20, 2011)http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=1+2122&aid=1177
- Griffin, Morgan R. "Healthy Cats Guide: Hairballs in Cats." WebMD. 2011. (April 19, 2011)http://pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/what-to-do-about-hairballs-in-cats