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Hairballs… Yucky and Dangerous

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.

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What Causes Hairballs?

Hairballs are caused by grooming but the cause of the grooming can vary. It can be that some cats are more prone to them just from normal grooming but they can also be the result of things such as over-grooming. A stressed cat that engages in over-grooming to self-soothe may be more likely to experience more frequent hairballs.  A cat may groom particular parts of the body over and over again due to pain (such as arthritis) and the increased amount of ingested hair may result in hairballs. If your cat has a flea allergy (common in cats) you may notice increased grooming. It’s important to pay attention to changes in your cat’s grooming. If you notice your cat is grooming more than normal, it’s time for a check-up from the veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical cause. Behavioral issues may also need to be talked about with your veterinarian if stress-related grooming is suspected. If stress is suspected, your veterinarian may refer you to a certified behavior expert such as a veterinary behaviorist.

Longhaired Cats and Shorthaired Cats

Typically, longhaired cats are more prone to hairballs but it also depends on how much a particular cat grooms. Keep in mind how much cats may groom each other so in a multicat household, a shorthaired cat may end up with a hairball problem just because of how much she may groom her longhaired feline companion.

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.

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