If you have been a cat owner for years, then there has been a time or two when you have been woken up in the middle of the night to the one sound that makes you jump out of bed faster than a fire alarm going off. Do you know what the sound is? That’s right, it’s the sound of your cat retching up a hairball. We know hairballs are a part of cathood, but here’s what’s normal and what’s not.
What is a hairball?
A hairball is basically what it sounds like – a ball full of hair. The medical term for a hairball is a trichobezoar. Ironically, a hairball is not in ball form at all, it is actually more tubular from traveling up the cat’s esophagus, which is why it can be confused with a hairy piece of feces.
A cat acquires this hairball by grooming. Did you read the article, “Why Do Cats Have Barbed Tongues?” If you didn’t, you should! The barbs on a cat’s tongue are called papillae which are pointed in the direction of the cat’s throat, which is why it feels like sandpaper when they lick you. When a cat grooms themselves, any hair that catches on the barbs receives a one-way ticket to the cat’s stomach. If the hair is unable to digest, the cat regurgitates the hairball back up.
Is a hairball normal?
Since grooming is a normal behavior in cats, the regurgitated hairball is also normal when it happens every other week or so. Cats with medium to long hair will be more prone to hairballs as well as adults to older cats that know how to groom themselves.
What’s not normal?
If a cat grooms excessively and regurgitates hairballs more frequently, like a few times a week, intervention is needed for a couple of reasons.
First, more frequent hairballs can be a sign of overgrooming and can be a signal for other health problems, such as anxiety. See, “Why Is My Cat Overgrooming” here on Cattitude Daily for more information.
Second, if the cat is a frequent hairball flyer, they are at more risk for an intestinal obstruction. If the cat is heard retching but cannot regurgitate the hairball, it may be lodged and should be taken to a veterinarian immediately if the cat is having a hard time breathing or is extremely painful. Other symptoms can include lethargy and poor appetite.
How to help with hairballs
If you feel your cat has an issue with hairballs, there are a few ways to help the problem.
First, brush your cat often. The more you can brush out the loose fur, the less fur your cat will catch on their tongue. There are also specifically formulated cat foods that are made especially for hairball control, such as Hill’s Science Diet Hairball Control. Another option would be adding a laxative to your cat’s routine, two to three times weekly, such as Cat Lax. This product is sold over the counter but always consult with your veterinarian before starting your cat on any supplement or medication.
Does your cat suffer from hairballs? How do you help?