With their meticulous grooming habits, cats demand the reverence of humans. As the saying goes, "cleanliness is next to godliness." Nonetheless, this devotion to hygiene can lead to an unpleasant byproduct for our feline companions: hairballs, also known as trichobezoars. Although hairballs are a frequent occurrence, they can indicate an underlying health problem in your cat and potentially pose issues.
With their meticulous grooming habits, cats demand the reverence of humans. As the saying goes, "cleanliness is next to godliness." Nonetheless, this devotion to hygiene can lead to an unpleasant byproduct for our feline companions: hairballs, also known as trichobezoars. As much as we adore our little furry gods, hairballs require us to clean up their upchucked mess from our carpets (by the way, dogs can occasionally experience hairball issues as well). Although hairballs are a frequent occurrence, they can indicate an underlying health problem in your cat and potentially pose issues.
Cat Hairball, What Do They Look Like?
Most hairballs in cats have a tube-like shape, but some can appear as smaller, rounded, or shapeless clumps of matted hair or a few loose hairs mixed with liquid. Due to the presence of saliva and gastrointestinal fluids that coat them, hairballs may look damp, slimy, or foamy, and their color may range from yellow to dark brown. Although they may resemble feces or regular vomit, hairballs are less foul-smelling. Their size can vary from the size of a dime to that of a finger.
Contrary to popular belief, cats do not cough up hairballs. Rather, they vomit them. A cat making a "hacking" noise may not necessarily be trying to expel a hairball but may be coughing, which could be a sign of a respiratory issue and requires a visit to the vet.
When a cat is about to vomit a hairball, it may make vocalizations before vomiting, lower its head and body with its neck outstretched, gag, or retch, and may swallow several times after the hairball is out. It is essential to note that if no hairballs are seen in the vomit, another health condition causing vomiting may be present. A vet visit is necessary to identify and treat the cause of your cat's vomiting.
The Cause Of Hairballs In Cats
Adult cats can devote up to a quarter of their time grooming themselves. Their tongue, with its backward-facing barbs (papillae), acts as a comb while licking their fur, picking up debris such as dirt, bugs, and loose hair from the skin and fur. Hair and debris are ingested during grooming, but since hair is mostly indigestible, it accumulates in the stomach. It can form a hairball over time, causing irritation in the stomach lining and triggering vomiting to expel it.
Early domesticated cats had less hair to groom, but even with evolving coats, their digestive tracts have remained relatively unchanged. While short-haired cats tend to handle hairballs well, long-haired cats may have more difficulties due to the increased amount of fur they swallow during grooming, leading to vomiting and an increased risk of intestinal obstruction.
Long-haired breeds that may face hairball problems include Persians, Himalayans, Ragdolls, Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, Siberians, Turkish Angoras, and Domestic Long Hairs.
Luckily, kittens are less susceptible to hairballs since they haven't fully learned how to groom their coats, making hairballs less of a concern for them.
Cat's and Hairballs: Are They Normal?
Although common, it's not medically normal for cats to vomit up hairballs. In a healthy cat, the fur ingested while grooming should pass through the intestines and exit with the stool during a normal bowel movement.
While a cat's grooming behavior is responsible for the development of hairballs, the way they eliminate the hair may not be normal. If your cat only vomits up a hairball once a week or less, a vet visit is usually unnecessary.
However, suppose your cat frequently vomits up hairballs (several times a week or daily). In that case, a visit to the vet is highly recommended since an underlying gastrointestinal disorder could be the culprit. Other factors can also increase the risk of a cat vomiting up hairballs.
As previously mentioned, long-haired cats are more prone to hairballs and are at least twice as likely as short-haired breeds to vomit up hairballs due to the larger amount of hair they ingest while grooming.
Compulsive grooming behavior or overgrooming can also heighten a cat's susceptibility to hairball problems. This behavior can be triggered by stress or anxiety (such as fretting over an unclean litter box), pain (a cat may excessively lick a painful area of the body), hair mats, skin disease (such as allergies), or ectoparasites (like fleas).
Furthermore, specific digestive disorders can also lead to an increased frequency of hairballs. Gastrointestinal motility disorders (when the GI tract doesn't contract properly, causing fur to accumulate and entangle in the stomach) and underlying causes of chronic vomiting (such as inflammatory bowel disease or GI lymphoma) can all escalate the risk of hairball complications.
Hairballs are usually not very dangerous, but they can get stuck in the esophagus (resulting in injury) or grow large enough to cause a life-threatening intestinal obstruction, necessitating immediate medical intervention.
Indicators that may suggest a severe problem requiring medical assistance include:
Treating Hairballs In Cats
As previously mentioned, if your cat only has hairballs occasionally, it's usually not necessary to seek veterinary care. But if your cat frequently vomits up hairballs, it's recommended to schedule a vet check-up. Always seek veterinary attention if your cat appears to be attempting to expel a hairball but cannot.
Luckily, most hairballs can pass without difficulty and can be more easily managed with specific remedies and commercial treatments. However, many home remedies can do more harm than good and are not recommended.
The Remedy For Hairballs In Cats
Using a small amount of plain petroleum jelly is one at-home remedy that may be beneficial. You can place a quarter teaspoon of petroleum jelly on your cat's paw for them to lick off and swallow. This practice can be repeated up to once or twice per week.
Petroleum jelly acts as a lubricant, helping hair pass through the intestines and into feces. Therefore, when used sparingly, a small amount of petroleum jelly or a similar gel-based hairball treatment marketed for cats can reduce the likelihood of hairballs being expelled the wrong way.
Some wet wipes or shampoos are also marketed to reduce shedding, which in turn reduces hairball formation, but many are not effective. Using hypoallergenic grooming wipes can at least assist in removing dead or loose hair before it's swallowed, but regularly brushing your cat is more effective.
Cat Hairballs And The At-home Remedies To Avoid
Butter and oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, and fish oil can serve as adequate lubricants to help hair slide more easily through the intestines. However, excessive amounts of these fats can cause gastrointestinal upset, including diarrhea, vomiting, pancreatitis, or weight gain. Therefore, cat owners should avoid giving these fats to their cats unless specifically directed to do so by a veterinarian.
Increasing fiber in your cat's diet can help speed up transit time through the gastrointestinal tract, increasing the likelihood that swallowed hair makes its way out into the litter box in the cat's stool instead of being expelled through vomiting on your floor. However, improper amounts of fiber supplements like Metamucil powder can cause painful gas distension and gastrointestinal upset.
Additionally, canned pumpkin is unlikely to contain enough fiber to be helpful. If you're seeking to increase fiber in your cat's diet, consider cat grass or a commercial diet specially formulated for hairball control after consulting your veterinarian.
Hairball Medication For Cats
Various commercial products, including both over-the-counter and prescription hairball treatments, can help alleviate hairball issues. However, before trying any medication, it's recommended to have a quick conversation or visit with your vet to ensure that there are no underlying factors causing your cat's hairball problems. If other factors are identified, they should be treated first.
Laxatone, a mild laxative and lubricant is a primary oral medication for managing feline hairballs. It comes from unflavored or flavored gels or powders that can be given directly by mouth or mixed into your cat's food. Chew treats are also available. While generally safe and mild when used as directed, excessive use of laxatone can cause diarrhea. Before use, seek advice from your vet.
After undergoing a complete workup by your veterinarian to guarantee that no other health concerns are contributing to your cat's hairball problems, a medication known as metoclopramide may be prescribed to aid in the correct movement of hairballs and prevent them from backing up through the mouth.
To decrease your cat's chances of developing hairballs, it's recommended to engage in regular grooming and brushing to remove loose fur before your cat has the opportunity to ingest it. You may need to gradually acclimate your cat to brushing by using positive reinforcement, but most cats enjoy the attention. Deshedding brushes are particularly useful, as they gently remove loose hairs from the top coat of a cat's fur and the denser undercoat.
Long-haired breeds should ideally be brushed daily. Removing fur clumps and hair mats before your cat has a chance to swallow a large amount of fur is especially beneficial. Clipping or shaving your long-haired cat may be necessary, and it's recommended to seek the assistance of a professional pet groomer.
Additionally, consult your vet about a feline diet formulated to help decrease hairball development. Hairball-control cat food contains increased fiber and includes fatty acids and other nutrients to enhance your cat's coat and minimize shedding.
Feeding smaller amounts of food more frequently can also help keep hairballs at bay. Wet foods are particularly beneficial to feed as canned food contains a higher moisture content to help move furballs through the intestines. Pet owners can also encourage increased water consumption by ensuring that water bowls are always clean and full or by using a fountain or bubbler, which many cats enjoy. Be cautious of treats marketed as hairball remedies, as many are high in empty calories and may not always be effective in addressing hairball issues.
Furthermore, to reduce the risk of overgrooming and prevent your cat from swallowing excessive amounts of hair, you can:
Implementing these prevention strategies can help lessen the severity of your cat's hairball issue. Nonetheless, if your cat is still experiencing difficulties, it's recommended to consult with your veterinarian.