Cats & Hairballs – Guide to Care

As a cat owner, you probably dread the sound: the retching sound your cat makes when she is about to bring up a hairball.

While hairballs are a fairly common occupational hazard of being a cat parent, you might be surprised to learn that they are not a normal part of a healthy cat’s life.

While that hacking sound may make pet parents think their cat has allergies or asthma, hairballs don’t originate in the lungs. Hairballs originate in the stomach. When you see a hairball, you know your cat is vomiting.

What Do Cat Hairballs Look Like?

You probably know one when you see one, but hairballs are thick mats of hair that are typically tubular in form – not shaped like a ball, despite the name – and are covered in a slippery or slimy mucus like substance. The more – oval shape comes from passing through the esophagus. Hairballs can be as small as an inch or up to a few inches or more in size.

How Do Cat Hairballs Form?

Cats ingest hair as they lick themselves repeatedly while grooming their coats. Because a cat’s tongue has backwards-facing barbs on it, the tongue moves hair into the mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach.

Any cat can develop hairballs, from long-haired breeds to domestic shorthairs, the doctors note.

What Causes Cat Hairballs?

Under normal circumstances, the grooming obsession that causes cats to ingest hair should not be a problem. The hair should move through the digestive system along with food and be eliminated in feces. Hairballs become a problem when the cat’s digestive system fails to move the hair efficiently through the stomach and intestines and out of the body as waste.

Cat Hairballs: How to Handle Them

Occasional hairballs may not be anything serious – cats can vomit up hair and food if they eat too fast or develop a sensitivity to their food.

Due to the seriousness of some of the potential causes of hairballs, however, pet parents should always take their cat to the vet if they starts producing hairballs. The only way to determine if a simple change in diet is enough to resolve the issue or a more serious health problem is present, is to have your regular vet examine your cat, both doctors stress.

Diagnosing Hairballs in Cats

To get to the bottom of the hairball issue, your vet will likely want to conduct some diagnostic tests, which can include bloodwork, X-rays and an ultrasound of your cat’s stomach and intestines, or an endoscopy – using a tiny scope to look inside your cat’s stomach while she is anesthetized and taking tissue samples to biopsy (examine under a microscope).

Treating and Preventing Hairballs in Cats

Treatment requires identifying and addressing the underlying cause, whether it is an inflammatory bowel disease, cancer or dietary issue. Some breeds, such as Maine Coon and Rag Doll, are susceptible to intestinal valve problems, which can contribute to the development of hairballs.

The occasional hairball can be prevented by feeding your cat a flavored petroleum jelly based remedy that will help move hair through the digestive system.

In addition, some vets may recommend changing your cat’s diet.

The Bottom Line on Cat Hairballs

The most important thing to keep in mind is that vomiting up hairballs is not normal or healthy in cats, both doctors stress.

If your cat is throwing up hairballs, don’t try to treat the symptoms without knowing what is causing her to vomit. Take her to the vet for an accurate diagnosis and precise treatment.

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