Hairballs are the yucky, tubular evidence that your cat has been grooming. When you first see a hairball on the carpet or floor, you may easily mistake it for feces because of its color and shape. Your nose will quickly tell you though that this yucky thing came out of the other end of the cat.
What is a Hairball?
Cats as famously fastidious groomers and because of the backward-facing barbs on the tongue (hence, the rough feeling when you are licked by a cat), the hair that gets trapped by these barbs will be sent down the throat and into the stomach. A small amount of loose hair that goes through the digestive system will often just pass through without problem and end up mixed in with the feces. Upon closer inspection of your cat’s fecal deposit (when you scoop – I’m not suggesting you get up close and personal with cat poop) you may notice some hair wrapped in there.
Sometimes the amount of hair swallowed is so dense that it can’t pass through the stomach and gets regurgitated back up in the form of that tubular shaped hairball.
The Danger of Hairballs
There are also times when the hairball passes out of the stomach but gets stuck in the intestinal tract and that can become a life-threatening situation because it can cause a blockage. If this happens, surgery is usually necessary to remove the blockage. If surgery isn’t indicated, your cat will still have a long hospital stay that includes hydration therapy, laxatives and close monitoring. Either situation will be stressful on the cat, uncomfortable, potentially life-threatening. It’s also costly to the cat parent.
Some signs of a hairball problem or possible impaction can include:
Vomiting of undigested food
Inability to pass stool. You may notice the cat in the litter box in a perched position.
Repeated dry heaving
Loss of appetite
Brush Your Cat
Reduce the amount of hair your cat ingests through self-grooming by making sure you regularly brush her. The more hair you can trap in a brush means less hair kitty ends up swallowing. If your cat doesn’t enjoy being brushed but she has a tendency toward hairballs, gradually work on helping her feel more comfortable with the grooming process. Start with a grooming glove so it’s initially just an extension of petting. Work up to doing just a couple of strokes with a brush and then offer her a yummy treat. Don’t make the grooming session a long, torturous session, but instead, do a little every day so it’s over before your cat has time to complain.
There are hairball control foods available that are higher in fiber and they may help any swallowed hair pass through the gastrointestinal tract more easily. You can also talk to your veterinarian about increasing fiber in the diet through the use of something such as canned pumpkin. Don’t make any dietary changes though without first consulting with your veterinarian because an inappropriate change in the amount of fiber can have extremely uncomfortable side effects.
Hairball Prevention Products
There are oral products that come in a paste or gel form that are designed to help ease the passage of hairballs through the intestines by coating the hairball and the stool. They are flavored in a way that most cats enjoy so your kitty may easily just lick the product from your finger. If not, you can put a little of the product on the roof of her mouth. Hairball prevention products are usually administered once or twice a week. If you have questions about how much to use with your cat, consult your veterinarian.
Make sure your cat is drinking enough water. Keep the water bowl filled with fresh, clean water. If you’re concerned that your cat isn’t drinking enough, consider getting a pet water fountain. Often, the running water from the pet fountain entices cats to drink more.
Need More Information?
If your cat has an ongoing hairball problem or if methods you’ve tried aren’t working, be sure to consult with your veterinarian. A hairball blockage can be life-threatening so you don’t want to waste time playing wait-and-see when it comes to your cat’s health. For more information on how to groom your cat, refer to the book Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett.
We’re sorry but Pam is unable to respond to comments. If you have questions about cat behavior you can find many answers in the books by Pam Johnson-Bennett as well as in the articles on our website. If your cat is displaying a change in behavior, contact your veterinarian because there may be an underlying medical cause. This article is not intended as a replacement for your cat’s veterinary care.