Cats are fastidious groomers and they typically spend hours each day grooming themselves from head to tail. When a cat grooms itself it ingests loose hairs, and sometimes hair accumulates in the stomach rather than passing through the digestive tract to the bowel. Long-haired or medium-haired cats are more prone to developing hairballs than their short-haired cousins, as are cats who groom themselves excessively.
What are Hairballs?
Hairballs (also known as furballs) are balls of hair which are vomited from the stomach. They are typically matted, cylindrical in shape (not round like a ball) and their technical term is ‘trichobezoars’.
Symptoms of Hairballs
Often, the first time you’ll realise your cat has a hairball problem is when you see a vomited hairball on the floor. The initial tell-tale signs are occasional gagging, retching, hacking or vomiting. Loss of appetite and constipation are other common symptoms. Whilst it’s normal for your cat to have the occasional hairball, frequent hairballs can be a sign of an underlying gastrointestinal problem or a more serious health issue. If your cat has recurring hairballs and is showing signs of constipation or diarrhoea, has a loss of appetite, swollen abdomen or appears lethargic then please seek veterinary advice immediately.
Preventing the Formation of Hairballs
Frequent (preferably daily) brushing will help to remove excess hair from your cat’s coat and decrease the volume of hair that is swallowed. This is particularly important if your cat is medium or long-haired. Grooming is a great way of bonding with your cat, it is also effective in keeping excess cat hair off your furniture. If your cat hates being brushed but enjoys being stroked try a hand grooming mitt. Alternatively, check out professional cat grooming salons.
Some cats are compulsive groomers. They can’t help it, so the trick is to try and discourage them from licking their coat by distracting them with a toy or another activity such as quality play time with their favourite human.
Most pet food manufacturers produce a high fibre, hairball food to reduce the incidence of hairballs. These are designed to improve the skin and coat which in turn minimises shedding, and assists with the passage of hairballs through the digestive tract.
A natural alternative is catnip or cat grass. Easy to grow in pots, incorporating these greens into your cat’s diet will provide them with extra fibre which is known to help hairballs pass more easily. For more information read our article: How to Grow a Herb Garden for Cats
Home cooked vegetable fibre in the form of boiled pumpkin is another source of natural fibre recommended for cats with hairballs.
There are a number of veterinary products available which lubricate the digestive system to help hairballs pass more easily through the digestive tract to the bowel. They usually contain paraffin, cod liver oil and other ingredients, and are often beef flavoured to make them palatable for cats.
Does your cat suffer from hairballs? What steps do you take to prevent them?