They Come With the Territory, but Can Cat Hairballs Signal Illness?
It can be difficult to imagine a pet more purr-fect than a cat. They are adorable, entertaining, and their quiet natures make them excellent snuggle partners. Additionally, cats have great manners and hardly ever embarrass themselves with untidy behaviors.
But there is one thing that doesn’t earn high marks: cat hairballs. They are never convenient or welcome, but is there a point when cat hairballs leave the “normal” category and enter a dangerous one?
Without a doubt there are some intrinsic feline behaviors, such as kneading or bringing you a fresh “trophy”. Hacking up a mess of hair and stomach acid is widely perceived as a common feline behavior, too. But that doesn’t mean hairballs are always healthy.
Not exactly ball-shaped, cat hairballs are actually elongated clumps of hair that have been squeezed up through the esophagus and out through the mouth. It’s no wonder that they throw these up. After all, cats spend a large portion of time every day grooming themselves.
Equipped with a scratchy tongue, when they lick their coats they pick up dead fur, dirt and other debris. The barbs that make their tongues feel like sandpaper only face back toward the throat, leaving them no choice but to swallow whatever they gathered.
Hairballs in Cats: Normal Or Not?
Cats can digest fur, and you might notice clumps of it in their litter box. However, cat hairballs, or trichobezoars, represent wads of undigested fur. How can they sometimes move their fur through the GI tract, while other times they need to regurgitate?
It could depend on the season, for example, during the high-shedding seasons of spring and fall, cats may ingest more hair than normal resulting in frequent cat hairballs. Similarly, cats with longer fur coats may experience more hacking than short-haired breeds.
When to Worry
Generally speaking, cat hairballs are considered normal, up to a point. If your cat is throwing up more than once a week it is time to investigate. If a clump of hair is too big to move through the GI tract, or back up the esophagus, a painful obstruction may occur. Cat hairballs can also become lodged in the small intestine, a situation that could require laxatives, various diagnostics, and possible surgical removal.
Signs of Stress
If your cat is lethargic, continually vomiting or unproductive retching, or refusing food or water, they should be examined without delay. Sometimes, symptoms can also explain possible respiratory illness or a separate GI issue and should always be immediately addressed.
Preventing Cat Hairballs
You can help your cat manage their hairballs by combing and brushing their coats on a regular basis. There are also specific diets and supplements that can reduce cat hairballs from getting stuck.