Cat parents know that awful sound too well. That aaack, hack, hacking sound your cat makes before it spits up a hairball. Cat parents, you know what we’re talking about, right? Cat hairballs are a common occurrence, but there’s more to them than meets the eye. You see, while it’s okay for your cat to exorcise a furball or trichobezoars once in a while, regularly spewing them isn’t something a healthy cat should be doing.
So what exactly causes hairballs, are some breeds more prone to it, and what can you do to reduce your chances of stepping in one, barefoot, of course!
Let’s start off by looking at what a hairball is and what causes it.
What Do Cat Hairballs Look Like?
A hairball is precisely what it sounds like, a thick, not-so-round matte of hair a cat vomits up. Of course, when your cat starts heaving one out, the panic and alarm from everyone in close proximity would have you believe that something more along the lines of this is going to appear…
In reality, they look like a slimier, less tidy version of Cousin It from The Addams Family…
They’re usually oval or oblong in shape, having passed through your cat’s oesophagus, and vary in size, from an inch or two to a couple more.
What Causes Hairballs in Cats?
Now that we know what hairballs look like, it’s essential to understand what causes them and whether they pose a real health risk to your kitty.
As gross as they may be, hairballs are the result of your cat’s fastidious grooming routine combined with its barbed-like tongue that catches all the dead hair from its coat.
While most of the fur simply passes through the digestive system without any problems, some stay behind. This is how hairballs are formed. Your cat vomiting it back up is its attempt to get rid of the obstruction.
Are Hairballs Common In All Cats?
As long as a cat has hair, it’s going to have hairballs. But it will be a lot more common in certain breeds, such as Maine Coons and Persians. Other breeds are just as susceptible, especially if they over-groom or shed a lot.
Kittens, on the other hand, don’t seem to battle with hairballs. The reason for this is quite simple – as babies, they’re just not that good at grooming themselves. And of course, they don’t spend too much time cleaning.
However, as they get older and become more adept at grooming themselves, the more hairballs you’re likely to encounter.
Tip: For a hairball free environment, you could opt for a hairless cat, otherwise known as a Sphynx.
Are Hairballs Bad?
For years, hairballs have been seen as nothing more than an occupational hazard of owning a cat. But over the last few years, vets have learned that there is a direct link between hairballs and a cat’s digestive system. In other words, a kitty that’s spitting up hairballs is actually vomiting it up, and more than likely has an intestinal issue.
While more unpleasant than bad, hairballs can cause problems over time. Keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms:
- If your cat is showing all the signs of producing a hairball (retching, gagging and hacking) but nothing appears
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
There may be an intestinal blockage in cases like this, which, left untreated, can be life-threatening. We recommend you get your cat to the vet as quickly as possible.
How To Prevent Hairballs
Okay, we know that hairballs are caused by your cat grooming itself and hair getting stuck in the digestive tract. But other than shaving your poor cat bald, is there anything that can be done to prevent them? The good news is there are a few things you can do to help your cat.
The first line of defence in preventing hairballs is to help your cat with its grooming. This will remove a lot of the excess hair, reducing the amount your cat swallows. Of course, not all felines are fans of being brushed, so it may be a good idea to get them used to it while they’re young.
Call in the professionals
If your cat is totally opposed to your attempts of brushing, call in the professionals. They will be able to assist with regular baths, haircuts and combing sessions.
Try distracting your cat
Some cats are compulsive groomers, and once they start, they don’t stop. If you notice your cat obsessively grooming itself, try to distract it with a toy or tasty treat.
Check their diet
Cats with sensitive stomachs or digestive problems are more likely to have issues passing hairballs naturally through their poop. Make sure you’re feeding your kitty good quality, nutrient-rich food. Avoid any products with grains, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Keep your cat hydrated
Making sure your cat is getting enough water is critical when it comes to preventing hairballs. Even though they aren’t big H2O drinkers at the best of times, your kitty must have access to clean, clean drinking water 24/7.
Mild laxatives may work
If hairballs are proving to be a real problem for your cat, you could try a very mild laxative like Laxapet. It works by helping the hair pass through the digestive system and ending up in their poop.
However, for your cat’s safety and your peace of mind, we suggest asking your vet for advice on the best product to use.
Frequently Asked Questions About Hairballs
Okay, so we know hairballs are part and parcel of being a cat parent. We also know that short-haired and hairless cats and kittens don’t produce as many as some long-haired breeds and over-groomers. But what about all the questions in between?
In this section, we look at the most frequently asked questions about your cat and hairballs.
Is there such a thing as too many hairballs?
Ask anyone who’s accidentally stood in one Asking an expert; however, the answer will be slightly different. While some vets agree that a hairball every now and then is fine, others will argue that even long-haired breeds should only ever cough a hairball up once or twice a year.
This is because vets have realised a direct link between hairballs and your cat’s digestive system. The more hairballs, the more chance there is something wrong with your kitty’s digestive tract.
Are hairballs ‘normal?
Let’s be honest, there is absolutely nothing normal about the noises associated with a hairball getting yacked up. But most vets agree that an occasional furball every now and then is fine.
What’s not normal however, is when your kitty is vomiting up hairballs more often or when nothing comes up. This could be a sign of a more serious underlying health issue, including a gastrointestinal blockage, a bacterial infection or overgrowth, inflammatory bowel disease, parasites or cancer.
Are hairballs removed surgically?
Hairballs very rarely need to be removed surgically. In severe cases, your veterinarian will run various tests to determine the cause and pick up any underlying health problems.
Is it normal for my cat to gag?
Gagging goes hand in hand with retching and yacking when your cat’s about to pass a hairball. Unfortunately, if you notice your cat is gagging more often than usual and isn’t producing a furball, it could be a sign of an underlying health issue.
It’s best to get your cat to the vet for a check-up to rule out hormonal or intestinal problems, food allergies or any other illnesses.
Can hairballs lead to more severe health problems?
Regular or excessive hairballs may be a symptom of something a little more serious. If you’re concerned about the frequency or that your cat is battling to pass them quickly, we recommend getting it to the vet for diagnostic tests.
Are asthma and hairballs the same thing?
No, asthma and hairballs are not the same things. Think about it this way, asthma affects your cat’s airways, while hairballs affect the stomach. Even though the retching, yacking, gagging (and sometimes coughing) look and sound the same, asthma and hairballs are two very different things.
To Finish Off
Although akin to exorcising your cat of a demon, the occasional passing of a hairball is no cause for concern. However, if there is an increase in the number of hairballs or frequency of vomiting, then it’s time to get your cat to the vet.
While it may be something as easy as a change in diet or using a mild laxative, getting to the cause of the problem is a much better option than just treating the symptoms.
We would ask you to see photos of your cat’s hairballs, but no one wants to see that now, do they?