Pet owners love the soft, silky feeling of running their fingers through their cat’s fur. But what they love less is when that same fur comes back up minutes later in the form of a hairball. It’s even worse when you’re the one that catches your kitty retching it up onto your prized sofa or newly vacuumed rug, becoming your responsibility to clean it up. It leaves a lot of people feeling disgusted or nauseated, while it leaves others wondering “What causes this mess to happen in the first place? Is this normal? What can I do, or what products can I use to prevent this?”
What is a hairball?
A hairball is the fur ingested by your cat. It leaves your pet’s body in one of two ways: (1) it successfully passes through their digestive tract to later on be expelled as stool, or (2) it accumulates and lodges in the stomach or esophagus, causing your cat to vomit it back up. This is usually accompanied by the infamous gagging and retching noises. The hairball will come out in either a circular, wadded shape, or a cylindrical shape from having passed through the esophagus. The color of the hair will be the same as your cat’s current fur color, but will be tainted with other substances and fluids from the body’s digestive system.
What causes hairballs?
Hairballs are caused by the most common behavior that kitties perform during the day: self-grooming. It’s a very natural behavior for cats to be licking themselves. This is how they keep themselves clean and fresh, especially as they get older and it becomes more of a habit. But their tongues have a very specific texture in order to do this. They’re rough with tiny hook-like structures that help to remove debris and excess loose fur from their body. The hair that their tongue picks up becomes ingested, but because hair is not digestible by cats it must be expelled from the body one way or another.
Hairballs are especially common in cats with longer hair, such as Persian Cats, Himilayan Cats, and Birman Cats. The same goes for cats that enjoy grooming themselves more often than others and have made it more habitual.
Is it normal?
The ingestion of hair by cats is quite normal because of their self grooming habits. However, it should be able to pass through feces most of the time. Vomiting is still a natural way of ridding their body of the hair, but it shouldn’t happen frequently. If it begins to happen too often, or if they are always gagging and retching without a hairball coming up shortly after, this can be a sign of blockage. Other symptoms of blockage due to hairballs include constipation, diarrhea, lack of appetite, abdominal pain, and lethargy. If any of these occur, you should contact your veterinarian so that they can identify the cause of these illnesses. From there your feline may need to undergo ultrasounds, x-rays, or even surgeries in more severe cases. In situations like this, it becomes important to ask yourself if anything is adding to the risk of hairballs in your cat’s life. For example, are they ingesting more hair due to excess grooming? Excess grooming can be a sign of other issues that must be addressed, such as anxiety.
What can I do to fix it?
Nothing can fully guarantee that hairballs won’t be hacked up here and there, but there are simple things you can implement in your pet’s routine to lessen the chances.
- Regularly groom your cat. By brushing their fur, you are removing as much of the loose fur as possible that they would have otherwise ingested. Cutting their hair may be necessary, especially for longer haired cats. This will also provide you a fun opportunity to bond with your kitten! If they don’t like to be groomed by you, you can opt to get them professionally groomed every few months. Giving them haircuts and brushing their fur won’t stop them from self grooming, but it can certainly decrease hair that accumulates in their bodies.
- Introduce them to a new diet. Diets and treats labeled for “Hairball Control” or “Hairball Care” use a formula with a special blend of fibers to help minimize hairball formation and provide optimal digestion so that it passes with ease. Many products will include higher levels of omega fatty acids and vitamins to boost the health of your pet’s skin and coat, reducing shedding and helping them to look healthy as can be!
- Try a gentle laxative if your veterinarian agrees that it may help. Laxatives are taken orally to help the hairball pass as easily as possible through the digestive tract. Many on the market use a combination of gentle lubricants while also incorporating vitamins and minerals for a healthier coat.
As the movie The Cat in the Hat taught us, hairballs are an expected and mostly normal part of having a cat. If you do your part of preventing the formulation of fur as much as possible and monitoring your companion’s grooming habits, you can help to reduce the chances of your cat’s discomfort and uneasiness due to hairballs.