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Hairballs in Cats: Prevention and Treatment

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Layne has worked in shelter medicine for over six years and likes to share her advice with fellow animal guardians.

Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs in Cats

How Often Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Hairballs are difficult for pet owners to deal with. We feel bad for our beloved cats as they cough, heave, and make noise, yet we cringe when we find those gross, little presents on the carpet. Not to mention, they smell bad and can stain fabric! We wonder if they can get stuck in our cat, if they hurt, if they can kill our cat, or if their occurrence means that we aren't doing a good job of grooming them.

Hairballs are so prominent in the feline world that April 28 is now official Hairball Awareness Day—that's because cats spend 25% of their day grooming and most cats get them once or twice a month. But when are they dangerous?

As cats age, they groom themselves more and more and the hair amasses in the GI tract; it is eventually expelled in a tubular shape. Hairballs, too, happen to cats of all hair lengths and breeds. Even regular grooming may not necessarily prevent them from forming. But how do you know when a hairball is stuck and causes an intestinal blockage and more serious health problems? Can a hairball kill a cat?

Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

  • Gagging, retching, hacking
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Swollen abdomen
Brushing your cat can help prevent hairballs.

Brushing your cat can help prevent hairballs.

What Causes Hairballs in Cats?

Hairballs are often a result of a cat's grooming. The cat's tongue is like velcro, its papillae are slanted and literally "hook" things. (If you've ever been licked by a cat you know!) As your cat becomes more particular with grooming as they age, their tongue catches loose hair and it then gets swallowed. The more hair that is swallowed, the more hair that amasses until eventually a hairball forms. Hair is made of keratin and is, therefore, undigestible.

Eventually, depending on its size, it is forced out of the stomach and regurgitated through the esophagus—this is why you hear hacking, retching, and gagging right before it exits.

Cats Prone to Trichobezoars Include

  • Long-haired cats (Maine Coons, Persians, Ragdolls)
  • Cats that groom excessively (compulsive grooming)
  • Cats that are not groomed adequately (require brushing)
  • Cats with high hair loss that are stressed or have health issues

Can a Hairball Kill a Cat?

Yes, they can kill cats if they pass into the small intestine and become lodged. Dr. Richard Goldstein of Cornell, explains:

“This is uncommon,” he notes, “but it is very serious when it does occur. Without surgical intervention, it can be fatal.”

If a trichobezoar gets to be large enough, it can indeed cause health problems in your cat. If it gets to be too big, your cat won't be able to expel it nor pass it in the GI tract. This can cause a cat to stop eating, act lethargic, or be depressed. In addition, a blockage can cause the tissues in the digestive tracts to become necrotic. Otherwise termed an impaction—impactions require veterinary care and treatment. If the impaction goes on for too long, your cat may require emergency surgery.

If your cat struggles to produce a hairball, you should get them to a veterinarian. Sometimes, gagging and retching can actually indicate ingestion of a foreign object—like string, a rubber band, foam, plastic, or any other small object that your cat might find and try to ingest.

Offer treats to prevent your cat from dreading the big, bad brush!

Offer treats to prevent your cat from dreading the big, bad brush!

How to Prevent Hairballs

  • Regular Brushing: Regular combing or brushing is absolutely essential for cats of all hair types, but rubber-type brushes are especially useful. I've tried using synthetic bristle brushes on my cat, but they don't seem to pick up hair, so I've switched to rubber brushes like the CELEMOON (found on Amazon)—this one is gentle and she prefers it because her hair and body are thin. Try to brush your cat once a day. If they are opposed to brushing, consider rewarding them with treats as they get used to it. If your cat's hair is too much to handle, consider sending your kitty to a stress-free handling groomer. Note: Warm weather can increase shedding.
  • Proper Nutrition: Certain cat food companies provide special hairball formulas which can help them to pass through the cat's GI tract. Also be sure your cat is on high-quality food and receiving adequate nutrition for optimal hair health as malnutrition can contribute to hair loss. Foods with high fiber content generally increase GI tract motility. You can also offer them kitty grass which provides extra fiber. Note: Always offer your cat fresh water!
  • Regular Health Checks: Have your cat seen by the vet at least annually, as various illnesses such as thyroid issues can cause hair loss—which further leads to the unwanted ingestion of hair. Symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal lymphoma may cause similar symptoms but have higher consequences.
  • Reduce Stress: Stress can cause excessive hair loss as well as excessive or compulsive grooming and hair ingestion. Reduce stress by removing the stressors or offering them sanctuary.
  • Offer Enrichment: Some cats groom excessively from not just stress but boredom. Compulsive grooming is similar to excessive chewing of the paws/body in dogs. When animals are bored or understimulated, they will self-main. Excessive grooming falls into this category.
  • Hairball Products: Visiting a veterinarian rather than purchasing a hairball product for use at home is recommended. You can, however, wash your cat with a cat-friendly, hypoallergenic and moisturizing shampoo if they will tolerate a bath—this can help reduce shedding. Laxatives and lubricates should only be administered by a vet!

Diagnosis, Treatment, and Remedies

Your veterinarian will either do a radiograph or ultrasound to determine a potential blockage and the location of the blockage. They can often determine gas accumulation and distention of the soft tissues with this type of imaging. They will likely also run bloodwork—analyzing the liver and kidneys.

Beyond formula, your vet might recommend a high fiber diet with beneficial enzymes to assist in digestion. Many cat hairball formulas are flavored over-the-counter products and act as lubes for the GI tract—but most vets don't recommend these products. Don't give them with food as they can interfere with digestion or may have unwanted side effects, especially in animals with sensitive GI systems.

How to Clean Up Cat Vomit

Anytime my cat has a hairball, I definitely pick it up with a paper towel and look at its contents—it should be clumped hair (in the color of your cat's fur), some food, and maybe even some kitty grass. Be sure your cat is not ingesting items around the house or vomiting bile or blood!

I cannot say enough about Nature's Miracle (I like the lavender scent/spray bottle) for pet accidents. It's great for all kinds of stains but especially useful on carpets and upholstery (always read the back label!). Apply it to the accident site, wait 5 minutes, and dab it up—don't let your pets approach it until you dab it up. The smell is pleasant for us but likely offensive to your pets, so they should leave the site alone.

The Best Thing You Can Do to Help Your Cat

When it comes to preventing hairballs in cats, the best thing you can do is brush your cat regularly and take them to the vet for a full checkup. Your veterinarian will always advise you in the right direction and rule out any underlying medical issues. This is the right thing to do.

Do not attempt to give your cat olive oil or follow unproven remedies that you read online. Treating hairballs at home is a big no-no. Although you may find some success with remedying the issues, you certainly want to rule out any other health problems with proper blood work and chemistries (like a thyroid issue or gastrointestinal disorders). Best of luck and share your story below.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2019 Laynie H


Laynie H (author) from Bend, Oregon on July 25, 2019:

Thanks for the read, Liz—our current kitty gets them all the time. She has medium hair, not very fluffy. She also goes around eating our other dog and cat's hair . . . which is so weird.

Liz Westwood from UK on July 25, 2019:

You give good advice for cat owners in this article. I recall the cat we had when I was a child having hairballs.