Cats have backward-facing barbs on their tongues. That’s the scratchy feeling you experience whenever your cat licks your skin. The barbs serve a very important purpose in a cat’s life. In an outdoor environment where a cat may hunt, the barbs help rasp the meat from the bones of the prey. The barbs also help kitty remove external parasites, clean off traces of prey on his coat after eating, as well as remove barbs and other items from the coat. And, finally, those backward-facing barbs help remove dead hair from the cat’s coat. Unfortunately though, because the barbs do face backward, once the hair is on the tongue there’s only one thing that can happen – it gets swallowed
Most Hairballs are Vomited Back Up
Some of the swallowed hair passes through the cat’s digestive system without any issue. If the cat swallows too much hair he may end up vomiting it back up. These tubular-shaped, saliva-covered globs of unpleasantness are known as hairballs. If you live with a cat long enough, there’s a good chance you will, at some point, end up stepping on a hairball in your bare feet. As unpleasant as this experience may be, it’s far better for the hairball to be vomited up than to potentially cause a blockage in the cat’s digestive system.
Hairballs Can Cause Intestinal Blockage
The hairballs that don’t pass nicely out of the cat’s system during fecal evacuation or get vomited up on your nice, clean carpet, can become trapped in the intestines. With the hairball trapped in there, it creates a blockage so no feces can be pass through and it creates an impaction.
If you notice your cat passing rock-hard feces in the litter box or if he isn’t having any bowel movements at all, it could be due to a partial or complete hairball blockage. There are also other underlying medical reasons for difficulty in passing bowel movements. Contact your veterinarian so the cat can be examined for a diagnosis as to the cause of the problem.
Brush Your Cat
For cats who have a problem with hairballs, regular brushing is a big help. If you thought you didn’t have to groom your cat because he has short hair, you may be putting him at risk for hairballs. The more dead, loose hair you remove with a brush means that much less hair will get swallowed by your cat.
Hairball Prevention Products
If hairballs are still a problem, despite your diligent grooming schedule, talk to your veterinarian about incorporating a hairball prevention product. These gel-like products are basically laxatives. They’re mineral-oiled based so they aren’t absorbed by the body and so they work as an intestinal lubricant. Hairball products come in several flavors such as malt, tuna or chicken.
Your veterinarian will advise you on how often to use the hairball prevention product based on the severity of your cat’s hairball problem. In general, they shouldn’t be used more than twice a week because mineral oil inhibits the body’s absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Follow your veterinarian’s advice.
It’s easy to administer a hairball prevention gel. Simply squeeze out a one-inch ribbon on your finger and offer it to your cat. Most cats like the flavor and will accept it without an issue. If your cat doesn’t like it, you can open his mouth and slide your finger along the edge of his upper teeth. Deposit the product on the roof of his mouth. Some people try the method of smearing the gel on the cat’s paw, thinking he’ll just lick it off. I’ve seen enough cats violently shake their paws to rid themselves of the gel before attempting to groom themselves. Unless you don’t mind having hairball prevention gel splatter on your walls (and on you), I wouldn’t recommend that method.
Hairball Prevention Foods
There are commercial cat foods available in hairball prevention formulas. If your cat has an ongoing problem with hairballs and the prevention gel isn’t working or you can’t administer it effectively, talk to your veterinarian about whether one of these foods would be a good option.
Your veterinarian may also recommend an increase in fiber in your cat’s diet. If so, you will be advised on what to incorporate into the diet and how much to use. Don’t supplement your cat’s diet with fiber without getting your veterinarian’s guidance. A sudden increase in fiber can have very unpleasant side effects.
Need More Help?
If your cat is having a problem with hairballs, consult with your veterinarian. If there has been a sudden increase in the amount of self-grooming done by your cat there may also be an underling medical problem. Stress can also cause increased grooming. Discuss this with your veterinarian. For more information on how to groom your cat and how to reduce stress in your cat’s environment, refer to the book Think Like a Cat.
Note: The information in this article is not intended as a medical diagnosis. Consult your veterinarian if you have any questions about your cat’s health.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.