Cat parents can relate to and recognise the coughing and retching sounds their cats sometimes make. What usually comes next (or out) is usually a wad of wet hair—a hairball—that immediately needs to be cleaned off the floor.
Hairballs are common in a cat household, but what are they really? And should you be worried?
What are hairballs?
Trichobezoars or hairballs are compacted wads of fur that accumulate in your cat’s stomach when grooming. When cats lick their fur, their rough tongues (which are covered with tiny curved spines also called papillae) pick up loose hair, debris, dirt, and dander, which get swallowed. Eventually, they build up in their stomachs, and while some make their way into the litter box, some clump up and irritate your cat’s stomach lining. Hence, the retching and vomiting.
Despite being called ‘ball,’ hairballs aren’t necessarily ball-shaped. They are often thin, long, and cylindrical like your cat’s esophagus. Due to their source, they are also often wet, slimy, or frothy. They range in size from an inch to up to five inches long, with a hue that’s slightly darker than your cat’s fur as it is moistened by bile and other digestive fluids.
What causes hairballs
Cats are fastidious groomers, but this habit has an unpleasant consequence: hairballs. Their rough tongue does an impeccable job keeping them clean, but it’s also what drives ingestible hair down their stomachs.
Due to the volume of hair they inadvertently swallow during grooming, long-haired cat breeds like the Persian or Maine Coon are more prone to hairballs than their short-haired cousins. Kittens are less likely to develop hairballs as they haven’t quite learned how to clean their coats thoroughly.
An unbalanced diet can also cause an increase in hairballs. Cats can handle a moderate amount of hair in their gut, but if they are not getting the proper nutrients they need, it can threaten their overall health.
Signs of serious hairball issues
It’s not uncommon for cats to vomit hairballs occasionally. Expelling hairballs is a natural, albeit unpleasant, way for cats to get rid of hair stuck in their stomach. Typically, hairballs are not dangerous, but in some cases, they can get stuck in your cat’s stomach or intestine and cause blockage.
Decreased appetite, lethargy, constipation, and frequent vomiting or attempts to vomit without output are some of the signs that your cat requires medical assistance. When there is a hairball obstruction, your vet needs to be involved.
Excessive production of hairballs can also be a sign of a skin condition, parasite, or a digestive tract disease. If it grows too large, a wad of matted hair poses a serious health issue. Meanwhile, if it remains trapped in the stomach or intestine for too long, it may mineralise and harden.
Your vet will likely recommend X-rays and bloodwork to check blockage and make sure your cat has no underlying illnesses, respectively.
How to minimise cat hairballs
While you can’t completely stop hairballs from happening, there are ways to minimise them and their potential complications. Here are a few.
- Try food that helps with hairball issues. Add more fibre or fatty acids to your cat’s diet. Fatty acids and balanced nutrients keep your cat’s coat healthy while fibre helps stop ingested hair from forming in the stomach. earthmade Grain-Free Cat Food is high in antioxidants, fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and kiwi for vitamin C. Kiwi also contains a good amount of fibre that helps move not just food but hairballs naturally through your cat’s digestive system.
As always, consult your vet when introducing a new diet to your cat. And even then, do so gradually.
- Keep your cat hydrated. If your cat is not drinking enough water, her digestive tract will work harder than it should, which may make the hairball problem worse. Make sure your cat has access to clean water all the time. Water helps flush out the hair before it has time to clump in your cat’s stomach. Plus, water is essential to your cat’s overall health, not just her digestive system. It helps hydrate the skin and keep your cat’s fur in better condition so it does not break and shed as easily.
- Brushing their hair. Reduce hairball formation with regular brushing of their fur. Brushing helps get rid of loose fur before your cat has a chance to ingest it. The more dead hair you remove, the less they can swallow when they self-groom. Note that not all cats enjoy the experience of brushing, so start slow and use positive reinforcement. Haircuts are also a huge help, especially if your cat has long hair.
- Monitor your cat’s grooming habits. Cats are meticulous groomers, but there is such a thing as excessive grooming. When our feline friends lick their fur too much, it can cause skin inflammation, sores, or hair loss. And if your cat grooms every chance they get, they are also likely to swallow more hair, which can cause more hairballs.
Interrupt your cat’s lengthy grooming sessions with a cuddle, game, or a new toy they can play with. Cats sometimes groom when they are bored, so it’s better that they are active and busy. This helps keep parasite and skin allergic issues at bay which can trigger an overgrooming session.
- Fruits with natural digestive enzymes as occasional treats. While cats have a completely different set of taste receptors (they can’t taste or enjoy sweet flavors), fruits still provide a few benefits to their health. Fruits like papaya and pineapple have enzymes that can break down ingested hair in your cat’s GI system. Make sure you’re only serving the fruit, and not the skin or seeds.
Give your cats fruit in small amounts as it has high sugar content and can be an issue for overweight cats. Always feed in moderation to avoid upsetting your cat’s stomach. Keep in mind that fruits should not be used as a replacement for cat food.
These strategies can help reduce the severity of your cat’s hairball issue. If your cat is showing symptoms, consult your vet immediately.
You cannot completely prevent hairballs from happening—it’s a natural process to get rid of what irritates a cat’s stomach. But you can help reduce the negative impact hairballs pose on your cat’s health.