Although a natural by-product of grooming, hairballs are often indicators of more serious conditions. Understanding the underlying cause of your cat’s hairball problem is important to know how to properly address it. That said, there are a few preventative measures and remedies to get rid of hairballs and decrease the likelihood of their formation:
- To lessen their digestion of fur, groom your cat daily with a comb, brush, or glove, followed by a wipe-down with a clean cloth to remove excess the excess hair from their coat.
- Ensure that your cat maintains proper hydration by providing plenty of clean, fresh water on-demand.
- A fiber-rich diet keeps the gastrointestinal tract moving and aids in the pushing of hairballs through the digestive system. Consider growing cat grass as it’s a cheap, natural source of fiber that cats love to snack on.
- Food intolerances or allergens can contribute to frequent or difficult-to-pass hairballs. Consider a grain-free or wet food diet for cats that are particularly problematic.
- Different types of laxatives and hairball treats are available that are packed with digestive lubricants, additional fiber, or emulsifiers that make it easier for hairballs to pass.
- Special foods that are formulated for hairball control are available with added enzymes, fiber, or emulsifiers that aim to aid in the breaking down and excretion of hairballs.
- Supplements for digestive support, such as digestive enzymes and omega-3 fatty acids help your cat maintain a healthy digestive tract.
- Discourage the compulsive grooming habits that lead to excess hair ingestion by alleviating allergens or stressors from the environment.
What Are Hairballs?
Medically referred to as a trichobezoar, a hairball is exactly what it sounds like — a mass that is comprised mostly of hair but also containing fat and protein, which is a natural by-product of your cat’s grooming habits. Hairballs form within a cat’s gastrointestinal tract and are typically expelled. Despite their name, these masses are usually elongated and can vary in size.
Generally, their presence is no cause for concern, however, frequent vomiting of hairballs could be due to some underlying issue and should be addressed. If hairballs are unable to be expelled, they pose the risk of creating a life-threatening blockage, either within the stomach or intestines, which may require surgery to correct. Another potential problem of hairballs is that sometimes they can obscure the presence of respiratory problems, such as asthma, due to the similarities between their symptoms.
Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?
Because of the rough surface of their tongues, as our cats groom themselves, they tend to swallow a lot of loose, indigestible hair. While most hair that is swallowed will eventually pass through their digestive tract and on into the litter box without a problem, some of it remains in the stomach and gradually accumulates into a massive clump of hair, fat, and proteins. At this point, the mass will typically be expelled through vomiting.
There are several factors that can contribute to the likelihood and frequency of hairballs. According to Dr. Richard Goldstein, of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, a hairball once every week or two is not uncommon. If your cat is retching up hairballs more frequently, this could be a sign of an underlying illness or other condition.
Older cats, who are much more experienced groomers, are more likely to develop hairballs than kittens and younger felines. Long-haired breeds like Persians and Maine Coons are also at a greater risk for hairballs than their short-haired brethren. Some cats are, just by their very nature, much more fussy groomers and are more likely to experience hairballs on a regular basis.
The presence of certain illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease, can cause a cat to have difficulty moving hair through their gastrointestinal tract. If the cat is also retching up undigested food, this could signal the presence of a motility disorder — abnormal intestinal activity such as spasms or paralysis. The presence of neoplasms, tumors or masses which can sometimes be cancerous, can also obstruct the passage of hair and cause an increase in the presence of hairballs.
Some conditions can cause a cat to ingest an abnormal amount of hair due to obsessive grooming. Cats will lick any area of their body that is painful or itchy. Flea infestation, skin disease, and food or environmental allergens are all factors that can cause a cat to compulsively lick themselves, according to Dr. William Miller, Jr. of Cornell.
If all medical issues have been ruled out, then stress may be the culprit. According to Dr. Miller, compulsive grooming can be the result of anxiety or other behavioral issues. Psychogenic alopecia, also called psychological baldness, is a condition that primarily affects indoor domestic cats and is often caused by anxiety, boredom, and stress.
Preventing Hairballs in Cats
Hairballs may be a natural part of our cat’s lives, but there are a few steps that can be taken to minimize their development and the complications that can arise from their presence.
Regular grooming is one of the quickest and easiest ways to get rid of excess hair, ensuring it doesn’t end up in our feline friend’s bellies or, as an added bonus, on our furniture. Most cats love a good brushing, and it can be a great way to curb the formation of hairballs as well as get in some bonding time, which helps lessen their stress and anxiety, if that’s a concern.
There are many specialized grooming brushes, combs, and gloves available to best suit your cat’s fur type or your own ergonomic needs. To remove any remaining loose fur, follow up brushing by wiping your cat down with a clean cloth.
Proper hydration is one of the most important factors in a cat’s digestive and overall health. Some cats can be quite discerning about their water source so be sure to provide them with fresh, clean water. Try using a fountain-style or gravity-fed water dish to ensure their bowl is always full and fresh.
Fiber-rich diets promote gut health and help to encourage the movement of hair through the digestive system. High-fiber cat foods are available, some specifically formulated for hairball control. Cat grass — a perennial grass, not to be confused with catnip — is a great natural source of fiber that cats love to snack on.
Discourage excessive grooming by addressing the underlying cause, whether physiological or psychological. Visit your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes of over-grooming. Allergies or parasites — such as fleas, ticks, and mites — can all contribute to a cat’s urge to compulsively lick and are easy to remedy.
To try and discourage stress related licking, spend plenty of playtime with your cat. Incorporate lots of toys and cat furniture to provide them with enough entertainment and safe spaces. “Most cats really enjoy interaction. Finding what your cat likes, whether it’s cuddle time with you or a favorite toy that is like a security blanket, can relieve stress,” says Dr. Pamela Perry of Cornell.
As a last resort, prescription medications may be needed and are available from your veterinarian to address any sort of skin inflammation or anxiety symptoms.
Address environmental factors that may be contributing to your cat’s stress levels or increased urge to groom. Try to reduce stressors on the feline by introducing people or change gradually. Keep the home clean and free of bits of human hair, thread, twist-ties, and other materials that could potentially be ingested and contribute to GI blockages.
What Are the Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats?
Though they may be uncomfortable, it is normal for a cat to encounter a hairball every now and then. Hairballs can occasionally be accompanied by a reduced appetite or mild constipation. Your cat may experience retching or gagging while expelling the hairball through vomiting.
Symptoms that are more severe or last for several days are more cause for concern. If your cat is lethargic, refuses to eat for a day or two, or has repeated episodes of vomiting or unproductive retching, you should consult with a veterinarian immediately, advises Dr. Goldstein. Below are a few of the symptoms to be on the lookout for that can indicate a much more serious condition.
- Frequent vomiting or an increase in the number of hairballs may be one of the easiest symptoms to spot and is often a surefire indicator that something else may be going on. Persistent vomiting can lead to esophageal damage and weight loss. It’s best to visit your veterinarian without delay to find out the cause.
- Regurgitation of undigested food can be a strong indicator of an intestinal or stomach blockage. Expelled hairballs will commonly have bits of food in them, but if your cat is expelling whole, undigested bits, you should seek advice from your veterinarian immediately.
- Dry, unproductive retching is often an indicator of a more serious blockage, however, it can also be a sign of a respiratory ailment, such as asthma. Make a visit to your veterinarian as soon as possible if this symptom presents itself.
- Increased lethargy, depending on the breed and age, may be a bit harder to spot than other symptoms, as cats are known for being particularly “lazy”. However, if you notice that your cat seems to be sleeping more than usual and is being less judicious about self-care grooming, there could be a serious problem.
- A sudden loss of appetite is always a cause for concern and can be indicative of any number of underlying health issues. If your cat doesn’t want to eat for more than a day or so, and it’s not due to a change in their food, then you should definitely consult with a vet.
- Frequent bouts of diarrhea or constipation are another good indicator that something is not quite right with our feline friends. Constant constipation or diarrhea often accompanies problems within the GI tract and can be a sign of inflammatory bowel disease. Consult your veterinarian immediately if these symptoms persist.
- Weight loss can be a sign of a food intolerance, serious blockage, or other ailments. If you notice that your cat has started to lose weight, and you’re sure it’s not due to an increase in activity or change in diet, then you should visit your veterinarian immediately to discern the cause.
- A swollen abdomen, or abdominal distension, may present itself with several serious conditions — such as abnormal fluid build-up, dietary intolerances, worms, cancer, or a gastrointestinal obstruction. Always visit your veterinarian for a physical examination when there is sudden swelling in your cat’s belly. Blood tests and ultrasounds will be able to discern the cause of the swelling.
Methods to Get Rid of Hairballs
It’s important to remember that, while problematic themselves, hairballs are usually the symptom of something else. Care should be taken to make sure that the underlying cause is understood so that it can be properly addressed. That said, there are ways that you can combat a hairball problem.
Dietary changes are probably one of the easiest and least invasive methods of hairball control. According to Dr. Debra L. Zoran of Texas A&M University, food sensitivity and intolerances are one of the most common causes of vomiting in cats. One study published in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association also suggests that adverse food reactions are the leading cause of excessive itching and skin inflammation in cats.
- A grain-free diet may be a smart switch if you think that your cat is experiencing dietary intolerances. For optimum health, cats require a diet that is moisture-rich, high in meat-based protein, and low in carbohydrates, Dr. Zoran advises. But be careful to inspect the labels of foods that read “grain-free” because these foods can still be packed with high-carb ingredients like peas and potatoes.
- Digestive support through the use of supplements such as omega-3 essential fatty acids and special digestive enzymes for cats can help to alleviate hairballs by promoting digestive health. According to a paper published in the Journal of Veterinary Science, consumption of excessive amounts of carbohydrates encourages fermentation in the colon and can cause adverse gastrointestinal effects. Supplementing with enzymes may aid in the digestion of carbohydrates and decrease the likelihood of such adverse effects.
- Specialized cat foods are available that are specifically formulated for digestive health or hairball control. Switching over to one of these formulas may help your cat to pass any digested hair more easily. Some. Canned food may be a better option for aging cats or cats that are experiencing gastrointestinal issues.
Remedies are available from your vet or over-the-counter that can help to get rid of hairballs, either by lubricating the GI tract to help with the expulsion of the obstruction or by the breaking down of the fats within the hairball.
- Laxatives may be used to help move the hairball on through the digestive system. Laxatives tend to be petroleum based and aim to lubricate the intestines to aid with excretion of the hairball.
- Hairball treats are an over-the-counter remedy that is typically comprised of fiber or emulsifiers that, like laxatives, aim to aid in digestion and movement of the hairball through the gastrointestinal tract.
Of course, as the saying goes, the best offense is always a good defense, so be sure to keep up with the preventative measures we discussed earlier. Take measures to ensure your cat eats healthily, is regularly groomed, well-hydrated, and stress-free to help discourage the formation of hairballs in the first place.