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Hairballs In Cats
If you’ve ever brushed your hand over a cat's back, you’ll likely have noticed how much hair comes away with just the lightest touch. It’s little wonder then that during the process of grooming themselves with their tongue, cats ingest quite a bit of their own hair that loosens during this process.
Unfortunately, most cats do not simply digest the hair they have swallowed during grooming. It inevitably gets regurgitated all over your floor or your furniture.
Regurgitating this hair is uncomfortable for your cat and exceedingly unpleasant to watch (or find in the middle of your bed!), so what can you do to help avoid this situation for the benefit of both you and your cat?
Let’s take a look.
What Exactly Is A Hairball?
Known as hairballs, furballs or more scientifically trichobezoar, these balls of undigested hair can be either an elongated cylindrical shape, indicative of being from the oesophagus or rounder, having come from the stomach.
Hairballs are most often the same colour as your cat's fur and will have a distinct but not overpowering odour. Once regurgitated by your cat, they should be swiftly collected and hygienically disposed of.
These balls of hair mixed with partially digested food, stomach acid and saliva, are a common issue for all cats, especially during the summer months and for those cats with longer hair such as Persians and Maine Coons.
Why Do They Occur?
Cats are great self-stylists and take care to groom themselves regularly, primarily using their tongues to cleanse and smooth their fur. The only problem with this is that the hair loosened during this grooming ends up being swallowed.
Once swallowed, the hair either accumulates in the cat's oesophagus or in its stomach. Rather than digest this, many cats will quite literally cough the hair back up - this is the hairball.
Interestingly, hairballs are not exclusive to cats. While they are seen more frequently in cats, dogs and any other furry animals that groom themselves can also get them.
Are Hairballs Normal?
Yes. Hairballs are a completely normal thing for cats.
We promise hairballs are not happening because your cat enjoys eating their own hair or is doing this as a nervous habit or desire to eat. They simply occur as a natural side-effect of a cat's grooming process.
However, you shouldn't expect to see more than one hairball a week from your cat.
If you notice an increase in vomiting, coughing or retching without the production of a hairball or the number of hairballs weekly, seek out veterinary care as soon as you can.
Vomiting without producing a hairball, an unusually lethargic cat, or one that has gone off its food can be indicative that a hairball has become stuck in its digestive tract.
Can Hairballs Be Dangerous?
Hairballs in cats do not usually pose a risk to their health. However, as fur is made of keratin, a tough and insoluble protein, it is not in fact digestible.
Rarely, a cat furball, if not regurgitated, could become stuck in the intestines as it moves through the digestive tract and create a blockage. In these instances, surgical intervention may be required. Again, this is quite rare, so while hairballs are unpleasant, they are also a reassuring sign that your cat is healthy and that no hair is being unnecessarily retained internally.
Can You Stop Or Prevent Hairballs In Cats?
While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever entirely stop your cat from getting hairballs there are some ways in which you can reduce their frequency and support your cat to be more comfortable.
Daily brushing is one of the best ways to reduce cat hairballs, especially during warmer months.
Cats are naturally trying to get rid of that hot winter coat as summer approaches and during the warmer months. This can cause them to groom even more frequently and as such ingest more hair.
By regularly brushing your cat, you’re removing a lot of this loose hair for them and making sure there is less to swallow during their next grooming session.
This is one of the reasons we encourage you to brush your cat from kittenhood so they are used to being brushed. It's much easier to train them from an early age to enjoy being brushed than introduce this at a later age when they're likely to fight against you.
There are several great grooming brushes for cats that can make brushing both easy and effective.
If your cat hates being brushed, you may like to wear a grooming mitten or even an old sock over your hand. This way you can disguise the grooming as some nice firm pats from head to toe that will loosen the hair and catch it for disposal rather than it being ingested when they next self-groom.
In addition to grooming, you can also try a cat laxative paste or laxative cat treats designed to help with hairballs.
Laxative paste and treats work by helping the fur move through the digestive tract where your cat will defecate it out, as opposed to bringing it back up as a hairball.
While dosing cats with any kind of medication can be complicated (and at times scary!) laxative pastes are easily administered by simply wiping it on their paw where they will naturally lick it off as part of their usual grooming habits.
Can Diet Help To Naturally Prevent Hairballs?
Not really, any cat food that markets itself as being able to prevent or reduce the instance of furballs is generally just going to be food that is higher in fibre. Consuming a high-fibre diet can help the hair be swept more easily through the digestive tract. Though this may not work for your cat.
In reality, there is no evidence to suggest that your cat's diet has much to do with how frequently they produce hairballs. It may just simply help them digest some of the hair rather than regurgitate it.
Ultimately if you have a cat, you can expect to see some hairballs around your home from time to time. Trying to get rid of or stop hairballs is simply not possible.
While unpleasant they are normal and the best thing to do to reduce their frequency is to spend some one-on-one time with your furry friend and give them a good groom at least once a week.
Remember, should you notice any sudden changes in behaviour in your cat such as an increase of hairballs, lethargy, food refusal or no hairballs at all as usual, you should seek the advice of your vet as a priority. This is just in case a hairball has become lodged in their digestive tract in which case they will need emergency care.