Help a cat with hairballs
Cat fur is beautiful and that’s partly down to how much time they spend grooming. It’s thought that the average cat spends 4% of their lives grooming themselves!
But all that cleaning and removing fur leads to cats swallowing a lot of hair, which can collect into balls in their stomachs. These hairballs need to be removed, often by vomiting. But many cat owners find it very difficult and distressing to hear their cats gagging and retching, and they start to wonder if they can help the cat with hairballs.
In this article we look at how hairballs are caused, what treatments are available and what exactly cat owners can do to help.
Why do cats get hairballs?
Cats develop hairballs by grooming themselves and swallowing the hairs, which build into hairballs in their stomachs. All cats groom themselves by licking at their fur. Their tongues have little barbs to snag the hairs as they shed. Barbs face backwards on the tongue, a design engineered by nature to help snag loose hairs, but it also means cats have little choice but to swallow the hair they groom.
This self-grooming is completely normal and cats should be doing it to keep their fur in good condition. Most individual hairs will pass through the cat’s digestive system as normal, but sometimes they can form clumps which begin to accumulate in the stomach. Cats try and vomit them up to prevent them going into the intestine and causing a blockage.
Related: How to groom your cat
How often do cats get hairballs?
Some cat owners think that their pet brings up a hairball every day, but this isn’t true. Cats should only get hairballs occasionally, usually less than once a month. Most hairs swallowed from grooming will pass through the digestive system and out into the litter box without a problem.
How do you know if a cat has hairballs?
When a cat is trying to bring up a hairball, they may start retching, gagging or acting like they are dry heaving and trying to vomit. Sometimes the sound they make is called a ‘cough-gag-retch’. This is because your cat can appear to be coughing from the lungs, gagging with their throat and retching from the stomach.
Related: Cat vomiting – what’s the cause
How to help a cat with hairballs
Many cat owners are concerned when a cat has hairballs because it seems like they are choking or struggling. What’s the best way for owners to help a cat throw up a hairball?
Some people suggest trying to massage your cat, but we advise against this. Although it’s difficult to watch your cat struggling and gagging, the best thing you can do to help them with hairballs is to give them plenty of space. It’s perfectly normal for your cat to gag several times to be able to vomit the hairball.
The key is not to get too distressed and just keep an eye on your cat to ensure they bring up the hairball and then stop gagging.
Cat hairball treatment
When your cat has hairballs, it’s common to wonder what treatments are available. There are lots of home remedies online, especially for oils and lubricants. However, we don’t advise trying these.
You can buy a specialist cat hairball treatment paste that contains a laxative and lubricant to help them pass through the digestive system. But this is not generally needed. If you do use it, follow the instructions to the letter.
One particularly effective treatment is hairball cat food. These kibble-based products contain lots of fibre to help take excess fur through the digestive system. They also contain vitamins and minerals to keep your cat’s fur in good condition and reduce hair loss.
Finally, vets can prescribe treatments for hairballs in severe cases.
When to be concerned
It’s normal for a cat to bring up occasional hairballs. You should only start to worry if the cat is vomiting up a hairball every few weeks or consistently for more than 48 hours at a time – it’s a sign too much hair is ending up in the gut.
Coughing, gagging, or regurgitating within one or two hours of consuming a meal are also signs that your cat may have trouble passing a hairball.
Very occasionally, a hairball can get stuck in the intestine and cause a blockage. You should take your cat to the vets if they have any of these symptoms:
- Prolonged gagging, vomiting, retching without producing a hairball
- A drop in appetite
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Excessive nibbling on grass
- A swollen or sensitive stomach
Dealing with cat hairballs
Most cats get hairballs from time to time and it’s usually nothing to worry about. They are more prevalent in longhaired cats than shorthaired breeds.
They can also occur more often for senior cats as they tend to suffer from constipation more often.
If you do want to cut down how often your cat gets them, read our article on how to reduce cat hairballs.