Does this sound familiar? You wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. Walking down the hall, you suddenly feel a disgusting little, wet, squishy sensation. Yuck! It has happened to me. Hairballs in cats are one of the few no-so-pleasant parts of cat ownership. Once you know some important facts, you can help to manage the frequency with which your cat produces hairballs.
Title Photo Credit: Emil_95 via Flickr
What Are Hairballs in Cats?
Cats love to groom themselves – sometimes even to the point of obsession. As the cat licks its fur, sometimes the little barbs on the cat’s tongue will pick up a stray strand or two. The hairs are then swallowed and they enter the cat’s digestive tract. Keratin, the main structural component of hair, is tough and insoluble making it impossible for cats to digest.
Most of the time, strands of hair swallowed by a cat will simply pass through the digestive system and be excreted in the cat’s feces. However, from time to time hairs get lodged in the cat’s stomach or small intestine. These hairs can mix with other stomach contents and build up to create a Trichobezoar, more commonly known as a hairball.
Cats that ingest more hair are more prone to getting hairballs. This means that cats with long hair, cats that shed a lot, cats with obsessive grooming habits, and cats that do a lot of social grooming get the most hairballs. Also, you will probably notice that your cat has more hairballs during the times of year in which it sheds.
When Things Get Hairy
To remove the hairball, your cat will try to vomit the hairball out. Your cat will likely do some retching, hacking, and produce a cylindrical-shaped mess that looks similar to feces. It may even take a couple of attempts to finally dislodge the hairball.
Many times, hairballs do not result in serious or long lasting medical problems. However, it is always best to consult with your veterinarian if there are any concerns about your cat’s hairballs. You should be concerned if:
- Your cat frequently produces hairballs.
- Your cat frequently vomits.
- Your cat refuses to eat.
- Your cat is not producing feces.
- Your cat often behaves like they are going to have a hairball, but no hairball is produced.
Rarely, hairballs become so stuck in the cat’s stomach or small intestine that the cat is unable to expel them. If this happens, the hairball may have to be removed surgically.
Hairballs As a Sign of Other Problems
While you shouldn’t panic if you cat has a hairball, veterinarians are becoming increasingly concerned with hairballs because the symptoms have been found to be indicative of other serious medical problems. Having frequent hairballs can be a symptom of inflammatory bowel disease, kidney problems, or even cancer. These illnesses can cause the digestive tract to become inflamed and “trap” hair where it wouldn’t normally be trapped.
A cat with food allergies may also have frequent hairballs. The irritation on the cat’s skin causes it to groom more and thus consume more hair. Sometimes cat owners mistake coughing for the hacking related to hairballs and the cat is really displaying symptoms of asthma.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Hairballs
Here are 6 ways to help prevent you cat from getting hairballs.
- Increase your cat’s moisture intake.
Your cat’s body uses water to help the process of digestion to work smoothly. Without enough water in their system, a cat may not be able to properly flush hair through their intestines. Most cats (especially those on dry foods) are not getting enough water. Switching to wet food and adding more water bowls to your home are great solutions!
- A high fiber diet.
Fiber is used by a cat’s body to keep solid waste inside the digestive tract moving. Adding a little pumpkin puree to your cat’s food might be just what they need.
- More exercise.
Keeping your cat moving will help its digestive system to keep things moving along.
- Daily brushing.
Do a little of the grooming for your cat. Getting rid of some of the loose hairs prevents those hairs from ending up inside your cat. Don’t forget to use a clean cloth to gather up the loose fur after you’re done brushing. If your cat doesn’t care for being brushed, take it to a professional groomer who specializes in cats on a regular basis.
- Hairball remedies.
There are several different petroleum based remedies on the market to help lubricate your cat’s digestive system. Make sure that you consult your veterinarian before choosing to use these products to make sure that hairballs are the real problem and not an underlying illness. Also, make sure that you carefully follow the instructions on the packages (or from your veterinarian).
- Distract grooming obsessed cats.
If you have a cat that grooms obsessively, you may need to purchase new toys or find ways to keep your cat’s mind on something other than his fur. You might just enjoy the bonding time together.
Believe It or Not
Cats are not the only ones that get hairballs. Humans and other animals have been known to get them too. In humans, it is most common among young girls who are compulsive hair pullers or have the compulsion to eat hair and other non-food items. It’s called Rapunzel syndrome when a human has a hairball that stretches into the bowels. There is a whole exhibit of human hairballs at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.