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Hairballs in Cats

cat hairball

Image By Tysto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons"

A hairball is a small wad of fur formed in the stomach of animals. When it reaches a certain size it is vomited up. Hairballs are mostly tight elongated cylinders of packed felted fur. Food is often mixed in the hairball. Cats are especially prone to hairball formation since they spend a great deal of time licking and ingesting their fur.

There is even a documented case of a woman having a tremendous large hairball removed from her stomach. Apparently she liked to chew on her hair and over the years had developed a large hair ball that had to be surgically removed. The article is in the New England Journal of Medicine

Every cat owner gets to dread the hacking and coughing up noises made when a cat is bringing up hairballs.

Many animals can get hairballs and they can be quite serious particularly in animals that cannot regurgitate. This is the case of rabbits in particular. If you have a rabbit that is dehydrated or not looking his best, have the vet check him out for hairballs. These can be quite serious for bunnies.

In cats, hairballs are a regular occurrence and usually cause no great trouble except momentary discomfort.

Hairballs form because hair cannot be digested and can accumulates in the stomach. The regular movement of the stomach causes the hair to come together and felt making a more or less solid mass. Hair has microscopic scales which help the hair to stick together and felt into a solid mass.

Is there anything that can be done to reduce hairballs?

Hairballs are produced in greater amounts when cats are moulting. You can figure out when this is because your cat leaves more hair around. My cats moult spring and fall and hairball production increases greatly during that period.

If you brush your cat regularly you will help collect the loose fur and reduce the amount that is licked up and swallowed. Few cats can resist a good brushing so this should not be too difficult.

Some cats are much tidier than others and groom a great deal. These cats tend to have more hairballs than sloppier cats. Johan is a very relaxed cat and does not made a great fuss over his appearance and he rarely has hairballs.

Oscar on the other hand is quite fastidious and he produces hairballs in great abundance. Since he is quite a drama queen, he makes a good show producing a hairball. If your cat is obsessively concerned with grooming, it might help to try and distract him with toys or a cat garden.

Cats with almost no hair such as Cornish Rex do not make hairballs.

The type of hair a cat has influences how many hairballs he produces. Long hair cats usually produce more hairballs simply because they have more hair. In the case of my Winston this is not the case. His hair is not prone to matting and he rarely seems to get hairballs.

Besides regularly brushing your cats, clipping in the early summer can reduce hairballs. Cats should not be clipped if it's cold but can be much more comfortable if they have long hair. My Winston gets a summer haircut and is much more active and happy for it.

What can I give my cat to help with hairballs?

Some cat foods are specifically made to help with hairballs. They work in several ways. One way of decreasing hairballs is to increase the volume of fiber and flush the hair down the intestine along with the undigested fiber.

A Study showed that cat hairballs had a high fat content and adding a food grade emulsifier helps reduce the size and the formation of hairballs. Purina Nesle was involved in this research along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They use soy Lecithin a common human food emulsifier. Read about the cat hairball study here

A third strategy is to feed a small amount of some commercial hairball formula. Typically it is a vaseline or mineral oil type base that is flavoured. A small amount is squeezed out of the tube and placed on the cats paw or nose. The cats licks it off and the lubrication helps pass the hair. Vaseline and Mineral oil based solutions can interfere with vitamin A, so if you use this regularly add a supplement to kitty's diet. These products act as mild laxatives and speed things along.

Any other way of reducing hairballs?

Exercise can also improve well-being including fewer hairballs. As exercise helps human it also improves the cat's digestion and reduces hairballs. Keeping your cat active can also distract an obsessive groomer.

It's difficult to explain to an animal that sleeps 15 hours a day that exercise is necessary but you can usually convince them to play.

What if the cats can't seem to get rid of a hairball?

A cat that hacks and goes through the motions of bringing up a hairball but can't seem to get it out might need help. If this goes on for longer than expected, or if your cat is not eating or is listless or if he has diarrhea or constipation you should pack him off to the vets.

My cat Jenny had a bout of serious hair balls. I took her to the vet because she was very crampy, crying and lying on her side. She had diarrhea and most surprising for Jenny, she did not want to eat. She was also very pukey. The vet checked her out and found she had a significant lump of hair stuck in her rectum. He said she was IMPACTED. She also had gas and odd stuff in her stomach. He took out as much as he could, gave her an easy to digest food, treated her with antibiotics to deal with symptoms of a mild infection, treated her for dehydration, gave her a prescription of acid reducer and sent her home. It took some time for Jenny to get over her illness. She seems fine now. This summer, all my cats have been shedding an awful lot more than usual. That might also have added to the problem. Jenny is a very diligent groomer and keeps herself spotlessly clean.


emails: Christine

This article is provided for information only. It is not to be used instead of consulting a VET. If your kitty is sick get some help.