Dealing with cat hairballs

Cats are very good at keeping themselves clean. They naturally know how to self-groom, and rarely need bathing. However, during the self-grooming process, they can swallow loose hair – and this leads to a cat hairball.

What is a cat hairball?

Cats groom themselves by licking their fur. In doing so, the papillae on their tongue (backward barbs that make their tongue rough to the touch, and which make their tongue an excellent exfoliator and grooming tool) catch loose and dead hairs, some of which they swallow. Most of these hairs will pass through the digestive tract and end up in their faeces. However, some of these hairs remain in their system. These will be expelled in the form of a hairball.

A hairball is a collection of dead hair and digestive juices that have formed in your cat’s stomach. Contrary to popular belief, hairballs are usually cylindrical in shape, not round. They are vomited by your cat as a way of getting rid of unwanted substances.

Don’t be worried if you see your cat stretch their neck, dry retch (their mouth opening wide) and expel a hairball before calmly walking away. It can be distressing to watch this, but don’t worry – it’s normal.

How common are cat hairballs?

Cat hairballs are part of cats’ instinctive grooming regime and are usually nothing to worry about. Kittens and younger cats usually have fewer hairballs because they are not as fastidious in terms of gro¬¬oming. Older cats, on the other hand, may have grown fussier and may produce hairballs more often. Cats with longer fur, such as Persians and Maine Coons, naturally produce more hairballs as their hair accumulates into a clump faster.

However, if your cat has hairballs frequently, it’s worth taking them to see a vet. Numerous hairballs could be a symptom of a problem in the gastrointestinal tract – in this case, it is best to check this out as soon as possible.

Numerous hairballs in cats can also be a symptom that your cat is over-grooming. Cats tend to over-groom when they are stressed – a bit like us biting our fingernails – and thus will consume more hair, leading to more hairballs. If you think your cat may be stressed, take them to the vet.

When can cat hairballs become dangerous?

In and of themselves, hairballs are harmless. However, if your cat is wandering around the house and repeatedly retching with no sign of a hairball (and especially if they’ve lost energy and are unwilling to eat), then take them to the vet immediately. It could be a sign that the hairball has moved from their stomach to their intestine. This is a serious condition that should be addressed by a vet immediately. Additional signs include diarrhoea and constipation.

There are many ways in which a vet may diagnose cat hairballs. This may an x-ray or a physical examination. In extreme cases, surgery may be needed to remove the hairball if it has grown particularly large; this can be expensive in terms of vet bills.

Constant retching (with no sign of a hairball) and lethargy can also be signs of asthma. The vet should be able to discern the underlying cause; either way, you will have identified a health issue in your cat and will have solved it before it gets worse.

How can you help prevent hairballs in cats?

There is no way to completely stop hairballs forming, but there are a few things you can do to help.

1. Brush your cat – Regular brushing can help get rid of the dead and loose hair on their coat. Regular and routine brushing can mean that there is less loose hair for them to swallow when they groom themselves in private. Less consumed hair means fewer hairballs. If your cat is fussy about being brushed by you, take them to a professional groomer.

2. Schedule regular haircuts for your cat – Keeping your cat’s coat regularly trimmed means that the hair your cat consumes is less likely to become tangled in a hairball and has a greater chance of passing through her system without incident.

3. Give your cat hairball-specific food – There is now specific cat food for hairballs, such as Purina ONE® Coat and Hairball. Such food is high in fibre, which helps stop hairballs from forming in the stomach. The balance of nutrients in the food also helps support your cat’s coat, reducing shedding and helping it to remain sleek and glossy.

For more advice from Purina One make sure you take a look at our full list of cat magazine articles.