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Cat Hairballs: Things Can Get Hairy If Left Untreated

Apr 28, 2017


April is a month full of pet health awareness days and events. The month recognizes Heartworm Awareness Month, Pet ID Week (April 16–22), World Veterinary Day (April 29), Dog Bite Prevention Week (April 9–15), and Hairball Awareness Day (April 28), to name a few.

In this post, we’d like to talk about hairball awareness. Popular culture formed by television and comic strips, like Garfield, have always referred to hairballs as a point of humor—something to laugh at and nothing to be worried about. It’s just what cats do. While it is true that most cats will produce hairballs, we want to explain when this behavior warrants further examination from your veterinarian. Furthermore, we also want to educate cat owners on recognizing signs when a cat’s hairball may be causing problems that require immediate medical attention. 

What exactly is a hairball?

Hairballs are wet clumps of dead hair that, over time, collect in your cat’s system through grooming. As they lick themselves, the dead hair gets swallowed. Normally, the hair will pass through the digestive tract and out through their feces. However, there are times when the hair begins to accumulate and becomes stuck in their esophagus or stomach. It’s in these situations when your cat will gag and hack to expel the hairball. Hairballs are, essentially, your cat vomiting.

Hairballs can occur in all cats as they are expert and frequent groomers. Long-haired breeds are likely to produce more hairballs than short-haired breeds. You may also see an uptick during certain seasons when cats are shedding their coats. It can also occur more frequently with young cats that may still be learning to groom themselves.

cat-hairballs.jpgWhat do hairballs look like?

While cartoons typically draw hairballs as round, that is not always the case. If the hair becomes stuck in your cat’s esophagus, what they spit out will be narrower and cigar-shaped. If the wad of hair reaches the stomach, it will likely be mixed with digestive liquid and be rounder. In both cases, if you don’t see your cat throw them up, the hairballs can be mistaken for feces. However, hairballs do not carry the same foul smell, and the overall color will be similar to that of the cat’s fur. 

Are hairballs normal? Should I be concerned?

Regurgitation and vomiting are not normal behaviors. It is the body’s way of attempting to fix an unwanted situation. In this case, instead of the dead hair being able to pass through the digestive tract, it accumulates in the stomach, causing your cat to feel uncomfortable.

Just as in humans, it’s probably not a cause for alarm if vomiting happens infrequently. The same goes for cats. A cat that produces the occasional hairball once or twice a month is probably okay. However, if you notice your cat producing a hairball once a week, or you see an increase in the number of hairballs, you should consult with your primary care veterinarian to see if there may be any other underlying issues.

There are certain conditions that get mistaken for hairball vomiting but aren’t. For example, if you see your cat hacking with its neck stretched out but not producing vomit, this could be a sign of asthma or other respiratory issues. Your cat should be taken to your primary care veterinarian for examination and testing right away. 

If the following signs are present, seek emergency care:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Decrease or loss in appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting 

Unproductive retching or heaving is also a sign that the hairball is unable to pass through your cat’s digestive system or be regurgitated. Instead, it may be causing an intestinal block. This is when signs such as abdominal pain or loss of appetite can occur. If your cat is diagnosed with an intestinal blockage, surgery may be required to remove the hairball. 

If you notice these signs after hours, do not hesitate to bring your pet to The COVE. We are open 24 hours a day, every day. No appointment is necessary. 

hairball.jpgHere are some ways to reduce the risk of hairballs forming:

  • Brush your cat’s fur regularly to remove loose hair.
  • Consider a haircut once or twice a year (especially helpful for long-haired cats).
  • Serving a specialized diet high in fiber can help your cat reduce hairballs. Consult with your veterinarian.
  • Consider hairball laxatives and supplements. Consult with your veterinarian.
  • Limit excessive grooming. Excessive grooming can be a sign of anxiety, boredom, or even allergies. Find what’s causing your cat to compulsively groom to remedy the situation. In the meantime, try to distract your cat with some playtime.
  • Sweep and vacuum floors regularly. Not only is your cat swallowing hair during grooming, it could also be swallowing fur and other debris from your floors. 

We hope you found this article helpful. If you did, please share it with your cat-loving friends and family. 

If you have any questions, we welcome your call anytime at 757.935.9111.

Category: Pet Health Tips