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Hairy Horror: What You Should Know To Reduce Hairball Hazards In Your Cat

If you share your life with cats, you have likely been presented with an unwanted gift from your feline friends: a trichobizoar. Better known to you as a hairball, you may be familiar with the retching sounds that precede the expulsion of one. You may have had the distinct displeasure of inadvertently stepping on one of these wads of slimy hair during barefoot season. Although hairballs are not uncommon feline phenomena, hairballs can lead to a serious health complication. The key to averting such a crisis lies in understanding where hairballs come from, knowing which cats are at greater risk for developing hairballs and taking preventative steps to minimize them.

How Hairballs Form

When your cat grooms, the tiny barb-like projections on her tongue, called papillae, collect loosened hair from her coat with each lick. This hair is swallowed, and it ends up in your cat's stomach. Hair is not digestible, but most of it passes in the feces when your cat has a bowel movement. Hair that does not pass through remains in the stomach, and it accumulates as new hair gets ingested through grooming. This accumulation of hair forms a hairball. Most hairballs are passed through the esophagus when the cat vomits them up, but some may eventually find their way into the intestinal tract.

When Hairballs Threaten Health

If your cat throws up an occasional hairball once every couple of weeks, the matter is of little concern as long as your cat continues to eat, defecate, and behave as usual. Be aware that hairballs can become lodged in the esophagus or in the small intestine, resulting in potentially fatal obstructions that require endoscopic or surgical intervention. Monitor your cat for any of these signs and symptoms:

  • Refusal to eat for more than 24 hours
  • Lethargy
  • Repeated and unproductive retching or coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea  

Since these symptoms can also indicate other problems, it is essential to have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and treatment. For example, repeated coughing spells can be a sign of feline asthma.

Increased Hairball Risks

Kittens and short-haired cats have a lower incidence for developing hairballs. However, even short-haired cats can suffer from hairballs, especially during periods of seasonal shedding. Other cats that have an increased risk for hairballs include the following:

  • Longhaired cats, such as Persians, Maine coons and Himalayans
  • Cats that groom excessively in response to stress, anxiety or a painful area on the body
  • Cats with diminished gastrointestinal function, such as senior cats or cats with inflammatory bowel disease or intestinal cancer

Preventative Measures

There are steps that you can take to reduce hairballs in your cat. Brushing your cat's coat each day will remove a lot of the loose hair that your cat would otherwise ingest when grooming herself. Brushing sessions also provide the opportunity to feel your cat over and discover any new lumps or bumps that need to be addressed to your veterinarian. Other preventative measures that you can take include the following:

  • Feed a nutritionally balanced diet to help maintain healthy skin and a healthy coat, which will minimize loose hair.
  • Feed a diet that is specifically formulated to combat hairballs. These diets are typically high in fiber content to keep things moving through in the digestive process. Alternately, you can add a spoonful of canned pumpkin to your cat's usual diet to increase her fiber intake. Do not use pumpkin pie filling.
  • Increase your cat's water intake by feeding canned food and providing a circulating drinking fountain.
  • Offer your cat an intestinal lubricant product that is designed to help hairballs pass through the intestinal tract. These products may be purchased from your veterinarian and from pet supply retailers. Be sure to use these products as directed.
  • If your cat is grooming excessively, enlist your veterinarian's help to determine the reason and provide effective treatment. Additionally, use interactive toys to engage your compulsive kitty away from her preening and transfer her focus to playing.

Taking steps to reduce hairballs in your cat will help to keep her healthy and your rugs, blankets, and feet clean. Talk to a veterinarian for more information.