Hairballs in cats: Signs, treatment and prevention

Cats get hairballs. It is an inevitable process. As long as the cat will groom, hairballs will form. How does a hairball form? Cats have long, sharp tastebuds in their mouths. When they groom themselves, the tastebuds in their tongues catch some of the hair. The cats then swallow the hair, and it goes directly into the stomach. Most of the hair gets digested, but some of the hair does not and remains behind in the cat’s stomach. The hair does not get digested by the stomach juices of the cat.

Eventually, enough hair accumulates in the stomach to form a ball of hair. The ball of hair will expand in the stomach, and cause a reflex action which pushes the hairball upward from the stomach into the esophagus and eventually back into the mouth, and the cat will vomit, ergo spit the hairball out.

The hairball is a mixture of gastric secretions, hair and saliva. Also, the hairball often looks tube-like, emulating the shape of the esophagus on its way out. Hairballs can also gather and form in the intestinal tract, and are eliminated in the stool. Problems with constipation may occur if the hairball is too large.

What type of cats or breed of cats will be most likely to develop the most hairballs?

Cats with long fur are more likely than short-haired cats to develop hairballs more frequently. All cats will develop hairballs at some point or another as they groom, but long-haired cats, such as Persian, will swallow more hair, and longer hair, so the hair accumulates more frequently.

What are some of the symptoms of a cat having problems with hairballs?

If you notice that your cat is heaving, choking, coughing, lethargic and has no appetite, it might be associated with a hairball that is obstructing the esophagus, or cannot travel up from the stomach. Problems may arise with the sound of the “Hairball Hack” an awful sound the cat will make if having trouble vomiting the hairball. It may be time to take a trip to the veterinarian at that point.

If the hairball is obstructing the intestine, it may be obstructed, leading to vomiting, diarrhea and a swollen stomach. A serious blockage may require surgery, so time is of the essence and if you see any of these symptoms come up, call a veterinarian immediately.

What are some ways to prevent development of large hairballs in cats?

Grooming is one of the number one keys to a healthy cat. Various types of brushes are useful for efficient grooming, such as the dual-sided brush, ergonomic brushes that will minimize stress on the hand and wrist while grooming, and gloves that have teeth that will comb the cats hair.

Also, pet vitamins are available that you can get at the pet store that the cat can lick off of its fur that will help lubricate the cats tongue and esophagus, and further prevent a glob of hair from forming as rapidly. There are hairball formulas that will break down existing hairballs and allow them to pass through a cat’s digestive tract, such as a soy lecithin emulsifier produced by Nestle Purina.

Use some due diligence in exploring ways of preventing your cat from developing problematic hairballs, or to take measures in the form of grooming or medicines to help minimize the size of hairballs. Make sure that you are taking your cat to the veterinarian at the first signs of problems, such as frequent hacking and coughing, diarrhea, constipation, lethargy, or lack of appetite. Pamper your cat with frequent brushing. Prevention is key to a more healthy life for your cat.