If you have ever owned a cat, you are likely very familiar with hairballs and the coughing and gagging that go along with them. Hairballs are common in cats and are normally expelled through vomiting. While hairballs are annoying for both cats and their owners, they are rarely more than a nuisance. In some cases, however, hairballs can become lodged in the esophagus or intestines, resulting in serious medical problems and the need for surgery.
Hairballs are a normal byproduct of the grooming process in cats. As cats groom themselves with their tongues, loose hair is inadvertently swallowed. This swallowed hair usually passes easily through the digestive system, but sometimes the hair becomes trapped and collects inside the cat’s stomach. When this occurs, the cat gags and coughs until the hairball is dislodged and vomited up.
Certain breeds, including those with long hair, are more prone to troublesome hairballs than other breeds, and some cats seem to swallow more than their fair share of hair when grooming. If your cat appears to struggle with hairballs frequently, or shows symptoms such as continuous gagging, constipation, or frequent diarrhea, a visit with your veterinarian is required. If a hairball becomes stuck and an obstruction occurs, surgical intervention may be needed to prevent serious injury or illness. Frequent hairballs and vomiting may also be a sign of an underlying medical problem, such as cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.
Some cats groom themselves excessively. This habit may develop due to anxiety, boredom, or other behavioral issues. If you feel your cat spends too much time grooming, you can attempt to distract him with a new toy or increased attention. If that does not work, you may want to discuss possible remedies with your veterinarian. If excessive grooming is due to anxiety or another cause, the underlying issue will need to be treated in order to correct the compulsive grooming.
The amount of hairballs your cat experiences can be reduced, but it is unlikely the problem can be eliminated completely. Brushing your cat regularly will decrease the amount of ingested hair, especially if you gently wipe your cat’s fur with a cloth after brushing. If your cat is resistant to brushing, try using a glove made specifically for cat grooming. The sensation caused by the glove is less offensive to many cats, and this product is widely available in stores.
A number of commercial cat foods are available that are designed to reduce the occurrence of hairballs by improving coat health and decreasing hair loss. You can also help your cat pass hairballs more easily by offering him a lubricant designed for this purpose. Lubricants are available at most pet supply stores.
If your cat does not appear distressed by coughing up hairballs, and shows no other signs of illness, the problem is likely minor and can remain untreated. However, if your animal seems uncomfortable, develops constipation or other problems, or you simply want to protect your furniture and carpet from vomit stains, reducing the frequency of hairballs in your cat is a wise move.