Cat hairballs don’t discriminate based on age or breed. You just hope that the hacking sound followed by the wet hair mass expulsion doesn’t land on your new living room rug or jar you awake in the middle of a sound sleep.
The word hairball involuntarily triggers grimaces on faces and causes words like “yuck” and “icky” to be spoken. Of course, you could call it by its proper scientific name of trichobezoar, but that doesn’t really downplay the disgusting display of your cat spewing out a hairy, matted mess from his mouth.
How Cat Hairballs Happen
Cats pride themselves on being fastidious groomers and sporting shiny coats. To accomplish this, a cat uses his barbed tongue across his body to lift and remove excess hair that he then swallows. Normally, this hair glides down the intestinal tract and sails out the anus inside poop deposit in the litter box.
Cats can go days, weeks or months without hacking up a hairball. But then it happens.
“Yes, hairballs are common in cats, but they should not be simply dismissed as a normal action in cats,” says Dr. Elizabeth Bales, who serves on advisory boards for the AAFP cat-friendly practice and Fear Free Pets. “When your cat hacks up a hairball, it’s time to investigate it and also, it is time to step back and ask why it happened.”
Does The Solution Match The Cause?
Behave like a pet detective, she encourages, by being on the lookout for clues you can share with your veterinarian before just reaching for a product like Laxatone, an effective lubricant to usher out cat hairballs.
“If you give Laxatone, but the real problem is anxiety, you are not effectively treating the problem,” she says.
Some hairballs occur from over-grooming, but others can be a signal that something is medically wrong with your cat. He may be overgrooming because he’s anxious, or he’s itchy from a flea infestation, or he’s dealing with food allergies.
Or maybe the motility of the stomach is not working well enough to push the hair through, causing a traffic jam in the back end,” Dr. Bales says. “Cats are such stoic creatures and do not want to show signs of weakness. Your cat may be dealing with gastrointestinal upset or irritable bowel syndrome.”
If you spot what looks like coffee grounds in the hairball, that could signal dried blood, a life-threatening situation.
“Your cat may be bleeding internally and you need to see a veterinarian right away,” she says.
In rare occasions, a large hairball can act like a foreign body and block the passage of food from the stomach into the small intestine. Without prompt veterinary care, this can block out blood flow and cause the intestines to shut down and the cat to die.
“I have had a handful of surgeries in which I removed life-threatening sized hairballs from the stomachs of cats,” Dr. Bales says.
Also, do your best to distinguish a hairball from vomit. A hairball is the accumulation of hair and is usually shaped like a soggy cigar. Vomiting can be caused by a cat who eats too quickly — a syndrome known as “scarf and barf” that causes the food to back up and out the throat.
Be careful in what you reach for to attempt to ease your cat dealing with hairballs and a possible upset stomach, cautions Dr. Elisa Katz, who operates Holistic Veterinary Services in the Chicagoland area and serves on the Feline Nutrition Foundation board.
“Cats have different physiologies than people and react differently to over-the-counter medications,” she says. “For example, do not give your cat Pepto Bismol or Kaopectate. “These medications contain substances related to aspirin and may be toxic to the kidneys or liver.”
Bottom line: Do not dismiss cat hairballs simply as a feline fact of life.
“Yes, I realize that vomit and hairballs may be an inconvenience to us” says Dr. Bales, “but they can be used as clues to share with your veterinarian so that, together, you can come up with the right treatment plan for your cat to keep him at his healthy best.”
Help For Hairballs
There are lots of available products today to prevent and treat hairballs, all available on chewy.com and other pet supply retailers. Here is a sampling:
Greenies Feline SmartBites Hairball Control Treats | $2.99 | greenies.com
Vet’s Best Hairball Relief Digestive Aid | $9.99 | vetsbest.com
Tomlyn Laxatone Hairball Remedy | $9.30 | tomlyn.com
Nutro Wholesome Essentials Hairball Control Dry Cat Food | $13.49 | nutro.com
Arden Moore is a pet behavior consultant, author and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey and very tolerant dog, Kona. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com and petfirstaid4u.com.