By Jennifer Coates, DVM
At some point, almost every cat owner has had to (or will have to) deal with hairballs. The immediate concern is usually, “how do I clean up this disgusting mess?” However, once the drama has passed, take a moment to evaluate the situation. Hairballs can actually be signs of a bigger problem than a stain on the rug.
Are Hairballs in Cats Normal?
The short answer is “no.” Cats are designed to groom themselves, and in the process they invariably will swallow some hair. However, the ingested hair is supposed to move through the gastrointestinal system and pass out of the body in the feces without complication. Unfortunately, this is not always what happens. Hairballs typically form for one of two reasons:
1. Altered gastrointestinal motility
When a cat’s gastrointestinal tract is not functioning correctly, he or she may be unable to move hair out of the stomach and intestines normally. Any disease that affects gastrointestinal motility can increase the likelihood that hairballs will form. Inflammatory bowel disease is the number one culprit, but hairballs can also be associated with internal parasites, pancreatitis, hernias, foreign bodies, cancers, and other potentially serious diseases.
2. Ingesting more hair than normal
Any disease that causes cats to shed and/or groom themselves more than normal can lead to hairball formation. External parasites, infections, and allergies can all be to blame, but so can stress, boredom, pain, and compulsive behaviors. Long-haired cats also shed more than do short-haired varieties.>
Even if hairballs are forming due to relatively benign reasons (e.g., a long-haired cat who grooms herself frequently due to boredom), the hairballs themselves are cause for concern. They are a quality of life issue for both cat and owner. In extreme cases, they can even grow large enough that they block the transit of materials through the gastrointestinal system and require surgery to be removed.
Tips for Preventing Hairballs
As always, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Options for preventing hairballs include:
- An over-the-counter hairball “remedy.” Petrolatum-based lubricants can help move hair through a cat’s gastrointestinal system. Unfortunately, cats often resist taking them, and their oily nature makes them messy and capable of staining fabrics and other materials.
- Grooming to reduce shedding. Regular brushing sessions are a good way to cut back on the amount of hair a cat ingests through self-grooming. This is especially important for long-haired cats. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may also reduce the volume of hair a cat sheds. Cats that have symptoms of skin disease (e.g., patchy hair loss, itchiness, redness, or other skin lesions) should be seen by a veterinarian.
- Dietary modification. One of the easiest and most effective ways of preventing hairballs in cats is to feed a special type of cat food that uses fiber to naturally move hair through the digestive system. A good hairball prevention diet should also contain high levels of the fatty acids that promote a healthy coat and skin as well as supplying all the nutrients cats need to stay healthy and happy.
If your attempts to prevent hairballs at home have proven unsuccessful, make an appointment with a veterinarian. He or she can thoroughly evaluate your cat for dermatological, gastrointestinal, and other health conditions that may be playing a role in the formation of hairballs and make appropriate treatment and dietary recommendations.
Hairballs do not have to be a fact of feline life. Vomiting regularly is uncomfortable and not normal cat behavior. Cleaning up the messes that result can be a major barrier to the formation of a close bond between cats and owners. Protect your relationship with your cat and his or her health by stopping hairballs before they form.