Shedding Light on Feline Hairballs

Feline HairballsHairball Awareness Day is April 25th. Most of us become aware of hairballs in the middle of the night, either when we hear that characteristic yacking sound made by a cat about to deposit a hairball on the sheets or as we inadvertently step on a cold, slimy furball deposited on the darkened bedroom floor.

Even though cat families believe hairballs are a common problem, a survey of British cats found most had never vomited a hairball – at least that their family discovered. Intuitively, the same study found long haired cats were more likely to vomit hairballs than short haired cats.

Why do cats get hairballs?
Cats may spend as much as 25% of their waking hours grooming. When a cat grooms, the barbs on her tongue act as a comb and brush. The shed hairs get caught in the barbs and are swallowed. In normal cats, ingested hair is excreted in the stool. Because most ingested hair is excreted in the feces, an uptick in the frequency of hairball production suggests a problem in your cat.

Can hairballs indicate a medical problem?
The simple answer is yes. Formation of hairballs suggests a cat is suffering from excessive hair ingestion or is not excreting ingested hair normally. Excessive hair ingestion can result from overzealous grooming behavior leading to hairball formation. Excessive grooming is a clinical sign of several feline health concerns such as fleas, itching due to allergies, an overactive thyroid gland, food sensitivity or stress.

Decreased grooming behavior is frequently a sign of illness in cats. If the illness progresses, hair mats develop. Once the cat resumes grooming, hairballs may form and you may also notice increased hair in your cat’s stool.

An increase in the frequency of hairball vomiting may also signal some sort of gastrointestinal problem preventing normal passage of hair out in the stool. My patient Sunshine developed an intestinal obstruction from a hairball when intestinal lymphoma disrupted her ability to pass hair in her stool.

Cat families often talk about “coughing” up a hairball, but if your cat is coughing, that is a completely different problem that should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention.

What can cat families do to minimize hairballs?

  • Control loose hair with regular brushing. Don’t just smooth over the top coat, but use a deshedding tool to remove dead undercoat. Many cat resist brushing, so start with short grooming sessions and use rewards liberally.
  • Feed commercially available food, treats and supplements formulated to improve intestinal motility and facilitate hair excretion.
  • Consider a lion cut to decrease the amount of hair ingested. Check out a photo of my patient Toby who tangled with a nasty hairball and now routinely gets clipped.
  • An increase in hairball vomiting can be a sign of illness. Report any increase to your cat’s veterinarian.
  • Ask to your veterinarian about medications that might help facilitate hair movement through the intestinal track.

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