That nasty wad of hair that your cat hacks up right where you can step in it is called a “trichobezoar” in veterinary terms. We call it a “hairball.”

Since we just celebrated “Hairball Awareness Day” on April 25th, we wanted to help all of our cat pet parents better understand what constitutes a hairball, how to reduce the risk of your cat continuing to expel them, and to reveal some of the dangers cats face with the constant ingestion of hairballs.

How do hairballs develop?

Hairballs are a nasty by-product of your cat’s grooming habits. As she cleans herself, your cat swallows the dead hair that has come loose from her coat. Those tiny, slanted projections on the surface of her rough tongue (papillae) pick up the indigestible hair and propel it down her throat and into her stomach. Most of the hair is excreted intact in feces. What hair remains in the stomach takes on a typical, cylindrical cigar shape and becomes moistened by bile and digestive fluids.

Longhaired breeds, such as Maine Coons and Persians, are more likely to develop hairballs than shorthaired breeds. Older, more fastidious cats – the more experienced groomers – are at a significantly greater risk of hairballs than kittens and young cats. Additionally, as the weather warms and your cat starts to shed, you may find that hairballs are a more frequent issue with your pet.

What are some signs or symptoms of hairballs in my cat?

Some common hairball symptoms include hacking, gagging, and retching. Usually, your cat will then vomit the hairball in relatively short order. Contact your veterinarian if you notice signs of ongoing hacking, retching or vomiting without producing a hairball, lethargy, lack of appetite, constipation or diarrhea as these could indicate a potentially life-threatening intestinal blockage.

What can happen if my cat doesn’t hack up a hairball?

It’s not uncommon for some cats to vomit a hairball once a week or so, leaving you nothing more to worry about than having to clean it up. However, if you notice the warning signs mentioned above (ongoing vomiting, lethargy, disregard for food, constipation/diarrhea), it’s possible that the hairball has passed through the stomach and may be creating a blockage somewhere in the intestine.

Diagnosis of an intestinal blockage includes a physical examination, x-rays of the digestive tract, bloodwork, and your pet’s history of hairball regurgitation. Your cat may need several days of hospitalized treatment to include intravenous rehydration of the intestines and administration of a laxative to help move the hairball out of the body. Surgery may be the only option to removing some hairball blockages.

It’s also possible that the frequent hacking has nothing to do with hairballs. It may instead be a sign that your cat is suffering from a serious respiratory ailment, such as asthma, in which case emergency treatment would be necessary.

How can I reduce the risk of my cat having hairballs?

There are several ways to lower the chances of hairballs becoming a problem for your cat:

  • Accustom your cat to daily brushings or combings to get rid of any dead or dying hair.
  • If your longhaired cat protests over daily brushings, take her to a reputable, trained groomer or your vet once or twice a year for a haircut. This is especially effective in the months when shedding accelerates.
  • Feed your pet a hairball remedy or lubricant – usually a mild, petroleum-based laxative – once a week or as often as your veterinarian recommends. You can purchase the remedy at your local pet store, online, or choose the one your vet suggests in their practice.
  • You can also purchase and feed specialty cat foods formulated to increase the amount of fiber in the diet, reduce shedding, improve skin and coat health, and decrease the formation of hairballs.
  • If your cat is an excessive groomer, distract her with a new toy or treat whenever you see her starting to lick. You can lower the chances of a hairball while you spend quality time with your furry companion.
  • Additionally, keep the floors of your home free of thread, paper clips, twist-wraps, and other materials that, if ingested, can become a dangerous hairball ingredients.

With just a few simple changes in your daily routine, you can protect your cat from possible serious health issues caused by hairballs, and lessen the time you spend cleaning them from your carpets, floors, and (ugh!) beds.

If your cat is prone to hairballs, be sure to let your VIP Pet Sitter know so that we can keep an eye out for any issues.  Have a question? Contact us.