All About Cat Hairballs And How To Prevent Them

We love our precious little felines and they love us so much that they’ll even leave little presents for us, like dead lizards or still-twitching mice. And of course, most cat owners have experienced the wonderful treat of watching or listening to their cat hacking and retching, resulting in the most glorious of personalized gifts: a hairball.

What are hairballs, and how do they form?

Literally balls of hair; hairballs are called trichobezoars by veterinarians.

How does that hair get inside your cat to be upchucked in the first place? When a cat grooms herself by a tongue, she swallows some of her own furs. Why? She doesn’t have a choice. She licks and licks with that serrated tongue, which easily captures any loose, dead fur. Because of that rough tongue, the cat can’t spit out the offending fur; the only thing a cat can do is swallow it.

What goes in must come out. Hair is not digestible, but for the most part, the hair just passes right on through her body, along with food being digested, and is then excreted through normal elimination. However, if too much hair accumulates and builds up into a matted wad inside her tummy, it is almost impossible to pass through the digestive system, hence the hacking and retching to try to vomit the hairball out instead.

Do all cats get hairballs?

Cats with long fur are more likely to develop hairballs. Not that short haired cats don’t also get hairballs, but it’s a matter of quantity — the more you have, the greater the accumulation.

Compulsive Groomers

If your cat is a compulsive groomer, they are more likely to develop hairballs. Compulsive grooming may have several causes. If you can determine the cause of the excessive grooming, take steps to eradicate the problem. Talk to your vet for help.

Sometimes, cats could just be bored or nervous and the process of grooming not only gives them something to do, but also soothes them. You, as the cat’s owner, can help alleviate boredom or nerves by giving your cat more attention, a calmer living environment (perhaps a safe, elevated perch if your cat seems troubled by the family dog, for example), or more ways to entertain himself, such as with toys or climbing trees.

Intervene. When you notice your cat sitting and furiously licking, start a game, brush him instead, or otherwise redirect the cat’s energies into an activity to avoid the excessive licking that causes hairballs.

Can hairballs endanger my cat’s health?

Although the process is unpleasant for owners to witness, most cats don’t have a problem dislodging hairballs. However, if your cat cannot rid itself of a hairball through vomiting or through the digestive system, they could suffer from a blockage in the intestine or stomach. Left untreated, it can be life-threatening, and require surgery.

Some warning signs of a possible hairball blockage are:

  • continued retching that does not produce anything
  • loss of appetite
  • lack of defecation
  • lethargy (lack of energy)
  • dull, unhealthy looking coat

If your cat is constipated, a hairball could be the cause. Make note of the symptoms you observe and consult your vet.

Tips to Reduce or Prevent Hairballs

If you think your cat is struggling with too many hairballs, you may wish to discuss it with your vet. In the meantime, there are some steps you can take to lessen the chance of hairballs.

#1: Brush Your Cat

Brushing your cat helps get rid of the dead hair, reducing the amount of hair your cat will ingest during grooming. If you start when he is a kitten, he will look forward to being groomed as a chance for spending time with you. If your cat doesn’t like brushes or combs, use a grooming glove. Longhaired cats, especially, can benefit from brushing, not just in preventing hairballs, but also in preventing mats from forming in their beautiful, fluffy fur in those hard-to-reach spots. Another good way to capture stray dead hairs is to wipe your cat with a damp towel on a regular basis.

#2: Special Foods and Treats

If your cat still has hairballs despite your assistive grooming, there are several dietary aids you can try. On the market, today are selections of cat foods and treats with special ingredients that help break up hairballs and aid digestion with fiber or other ingredients.

#3: Facilitate a Hairball

If your cat is having a troublesome hairball, you can use a gel lubricant or chewy lubricant treat designed to help the hairball pass through his body. Such gels and treats are widely available online and at pet and grocery stores in a variety of flavors that cats love. The conventional versions contain a petroleum product, and natural versions are available with other active ingredients. There are several ways to administer these gels. Some cats can be fed by spoon. With others, putting it on their nose can trigger a licking response. If these methods fail, spread some on their paws.

Home Remedies

Home remedies and recipes for removing hairballs are plentiful. For example, butter, mineral oil, and pumpkin. Before using a home remedy or recipe, please ask your vet. It is quite possible to unintentionally make things worse.

A Cure?

There is no cure for the common cat hairball, but as you can see from the preventatives listed above, there are specific measures to try before surgery is considered.

When to See the Vet

If you have concerns about hairballs in general but your cat is behaving normally and appears healthy, make note of your cat’s grooming behavior and how often he vomits hairballs. A discussion with your vet during your cat’s next checkup can help you decide if switching to a hairball prevention food is the right thing for your cat. Until then, continue regular grooming to help prevent hairballs and matted fur, and to spend precious bonding time with your feline.

If your cat displays any unusual behavior like ongoing, nonproductive retching or lack of body elimination, get your cat to a veterinarian as soon as possible. It could indicate a life-threatening internal blockage. After a thorough exam, the vet will provide you with the best course of treatment for your feline’s dreaded hairball.