Health Topics

Hairballs: Bringing Up The Worst In Cats

(This article was originally published in the July/August 2009 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

Nothing signals spring like the sound of your cat hacking up his first hairball of the season. It is a sound that is not forgotten by many cat owners. Always starting with a wretch and ending with a slimy lump of hair waiting to be stepped in: an experience no cat parent will ever forget.

What is a hairball?

A hairball is a cylindrical formation of hair that can be found in the digestive tract of a cat. When hair is ingested it can sometimes sit in the stomach and intestines and attach to other hair and food. This results in the formation of a sausage-shaped mass of hair that can't easily move through the digestive system.

Why do cats get hairballs?

Cats naturally shed their coats throughout the year, to allow for new hair growth, especially when the seasons change from fall to winter and spring to summer. Cats are also fastidious groomers and are constantly licking their fur to keep themselves clean and tangle free. While grooming, a cat will ingest any loose hair that may be shedding when they lick their fur with their specialized tongue (that has barb like hairs on it) acting like a comb.

Why do hairballs cause problems?

Hairballs cause problems because they often sit in the digestive tract and cannot be broken down and digested as food is. This causes these solid masses of hair to get stuck in the digestive tract preventing them from passing through the digestive system normally. When this occurs a cat is triggered to cough and vomit these hairballs back through the digestive tract in an effort to rid the body of this indigestible material. In severe cases, hairballs that are lodged in the digestive tract of animals, and can't be released on their own, may require surgical intervention to clear the blockage.

What can be done to prevent hairballs?

Brushing your cat regularly to decrease the amount of loose fur they consume when grooming is a great way of helping to prevent the formation of hairballs. For cats that have chronic hairball issues a veterinarian can provide a hairball remedy, which comes in the form of a very palatable paste and acts as a laxative, aiding in smooth transition of hairballs through the digestive tract.

Although the look on your cats face is alarming when they are about to hack up a hairball, hairballs are really quite common and not a major cause for concern, except in rare cases. Working towards trying to prevent hairballs will not only be appreciated by your cat when shedding season is in full swing, you will also be thankful when you aren't surprised by unexpectedly stepping in that cold lump of wet fur on the floor.