Cats are excellent groomers — in fact, it’s one of their most defining habits. When cats groom, they swallow a lot of loose hair. These hairs can form into masses, commonly called “hairballs,” within the cat’s stomach and digestive system. If your cat appears to be vomiting up hairballs, you might be wondering why and what you can do about it. Below, we provide some tips and information to help you know whether that hairball — scientifically known as a trichobezoar — is cause for concern.
What Causes Cat Hairballs?
Hairballs are a natural part of life for cats. They happen because as cats groom themselves, they will occasionally swallow hairs. Much of the dead hair your cat ingests will pass through the digestive tract and be excreted in the feces.
However, some of it may remain in the stomach and form into hairballs that cats cannot pass, because the presence of keratin in hair prevents digestion. In most cases, they simply spit it up — leaving it for you to find.
Are These Hairballs Normal?
Hairballs are usually harmless. It’s not uncommon for cats to ingest excess hair as they engage in daily grooming. Hairballs are more common among cats with longer fur and older cats, who have mastered the art of grooming. They are also more likely to happen during the seasons when cats shed their coats.
If your cat upchucks a hairball once a week or so, this is typically normal activity. In some cases, however, trichobezoar in cats may result in gastrointestinal distress. If your cat ingests too much hair, it may get tangled within the digestive tract and become too large to pass. If your cat doesn’t vomit up the hairball, it could result in an intestinal blockage.
What Are the Signs of a Hairball?
The most obvious sign of a hairball in cats is vomiting up a large amount of fur. However, you should also be aware of some other symptoms that may indicate your pet has a hairball they cannot dislodge, including:
- Regular vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking that doesn’t produce a hairball
- Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
- Uncharacteristic lethargy
- Constipation or diarrhea
If you notice your cat is displaying any of these symptoms, contact your vet immediately for further investigation.
Diagnosis of Hairballs in Cats
If your cat vomits up thin, cylindrical-shaped clumps of fur, it’s most likely a hairball. At first glance, you might confuse it with feces. However, hairballs do not have the same offensive odor and are easy to spot for those who are brave enough to investigate. They are typically the same color as your cat’s fur (if not a bit wetter).
If you are noticing any concerning symptoms like those described above, your vet may recommend further diagnostics. A thorough examination may include a skin check, blood tests, an overall health check, and gastrointestinal testing. If your vet suspects an obstruction due to a trichobezoar, they may also palpate the abdomen and advise taking X-rays. More extensive testing may include a contrast study of the intestines or an ultrasound.
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What to Do
Keep in mind that hairballs are usually nothing to worry about as long as they are not happening too frequently and your cat seems otherwise well. If you start to notice more regular hairballs, consider keeping a log of when you find them.
Keep track of any other behavior, too, such as unproductive retching, excessive grooming, or changes in diet or activity. The more you know about your cat’s behavior, the better prepared you will be to help them and discuss possible solutions with your vet.
How to Treat It
Generally, cats will vomit up hairballs on their own, and there will be no need for additional treatment. However, if your cat is vomiting frequently, has diarrhea, seems to be in pain, or is showing any other signs of distress, you should contact your veterinarian immediately. Your cat may have a gastrointestinal problem such as an intestinal blockage caused by hairballs.
In this case, only a thorough medical examination will tell you the best next steps. Work with your vet to decide on the best course of treatment for your furry friend.
How to Prevent Hairballs
Naturally, avoiding any extensive testing and unnecessary distress for your cat is your first concern. Follow these tips to minimize hairballs for your feline friend:
- Brush your cat regularly to help remove loose fur. Be prepared if you have a frisky kitty; wear gloves to minimize the risk of getting scratched!
- Take your cat to a trusted groomer for a haircut once or twice a year, particularly if you have a long-haired breed.
- Feed your cat a mild petroleum-based laxative once or twice a week. Ask your vet for a recommendation.
- Keep your floor free of debris that could become dangerous if ingested and entangled along with a hairball.
- Ask your vet whether a hairball-specific diet is appropriate for your cat. Such diets are high-fiber and intended to help move hair through the GI tract before it forms into a ball of fur.
- Inquire about supplements to reduce the formation of hairballs. In some cases, your vet may also recommend medication to minimize risk.
The Danger of Hairballs
If left untreated, hairballs that become lodged in the intestinal tract can be life-threatening for cats. It’s best to consult with your vet right away if you think hairballs are a problem for your cat. Your vet may recommend intravenous rehydration and laxatives as a starting point. In some cases, surgery may be the only option to remove an intestinal blockage.
With proper care and attention from their caregivers, cats may be able to avoid the problems associated with hairballs. As long as you’re not seeing regular hairballs and your cat seems healthy, you need not worry. It might mean finding a clumpy mess on your floor or furniture from time to time, but that just goes with the territory when you’re a cat parent.
Are you worried about your cat and would you like some advice? Our vets are ready for you.