Hack, hack, hack – Hairballs! – Invaluable advice for cat owners

There’s nothing quite like being woken up at 2am to the oh-so-unpleasant sound of your cat producing a large hairball at the foot of your bed.  Or perhaps quite so unsettling as stepping in it the following morning.  Hairballs, also known by the fancy and somewhat horrifying name of ‘trichobezoar’, are something that most cat owners will have to deal with at some point.  But how do they form and how can we help prevent them?

What is a hairball anyway?

A hairball is pretty much what it says on the tin – a ball of hair.  Except it isn’t often in the shape of a ball, more cigar-shaped due to its passage through the oesophagus on the way out.  They’re usually quite small, a few cm in length, but can be quite impressive at times.  Cats have tiny barbs on their tongue that are perfect for picking up dead hairs in the coat.  When the cat grooms itself, it swallows a significant amount of hair which usually passes without issue in the stools but sometimes accumulates in the stomach instead.  Hairballs are, as one might expect, more common in long-haired cats and older, more experienced groomers who have more time to spend cleaning themselves each day.  They also tend to occur seasonally, at times of increased shedding.  Sounds like a pretty normal process, and in fact, it’s not uncommon for most cats to have a hairball once or twice a year (a spring clear-out of the stomach if you will…).  But are they really ‘normal’?

Are hairballs a cause for concern?

If they happen infrequently and the cat seems to pass them without issue, then there isn’t much to worry about.  However, there are some medical conditions which can cause more frequent furball production:

  • Pain or stress can cause cats to overgroom, leading to increased hair ingestion
  • Flea infestation can lead to increased grooming as the cat tries to get rid of the little critters and the itch they leave behind
  • Allergic skin disease also causes itchy skin that cats are more likely to lick excessively
  • Gastrointestinal disease can alter the speed at which material moves through the intestinal tract, resulting in less hair making it out in the stool and more getting trapped in the stomach.

But even with the above conditions, the increased hairball production can usually be managed and treated accordingly.  Of much greater concern are the hairballs that DON’T get coughed up and instead stay in the stomach, getting larger and larger until they’re too large to come back out.  In this case, it will either stay in the stomach until it is so big that it causes significant other symptoms, or try to pass into the intestines and cause a life-threatening obstruction.  The only treatment is surgery to remove the blockage, and reports of hairballs the size of a grapefruit are not unheard of!

Is there anything we can do to prevent them?

Cats will always swallow their own fur, but there are some things you can do to minimise the impact:

  • Groom your cat regularly.  By brushing them you remove a lot of the dead hair that they would otherwise be ingesting.
  • Long-haired cats with significant hairball problems can have their coat clipped a few times a year to minimise the fur load.
  • Feed small meals frequently, instead of one or two large meals a day, to help move things through the intestines more quickly
  • You could consider changing the diet, as any diet change can affect gastrointestinal function.  There are special hairball diets out there but in most cases there is little scientific evidence to say that they work.  Speak with your vet before changing your cat’s diet.
  • Your vet may prescribe various medications, which can include oils such as liquid paraffin or other hairball remedies which can help lubricate the hairballs, enabling them to pass through the intestines more easily.

One final word of caution – sometimes people mistake a coughing cat for one that is trying to bring up a hairball as the noise is very similar.  If your cat ‘hacks’ like it’s about to produce a hairball but nothing ever appears, speak with your vet as coughing in a cat can actually be a sign of a serious illness such as asthma or occasionally heart disease.  And like any other medical problem, if your cat does get frequent hairballs, don’t wait for it to get worse, ask your vet for advice and get it sorted before it becomes an even bigger problem.

Amy Bergs DVM MRCVS  – Visit The Cat Doctor website by clicking HERE

If you are worried about any aspect of your cat’s health, please book an appointment with your vet or use our symptom guide.

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