No two ways about it: Hairballs in cats are unpleasant. And they’re not just disagreeable for the person who has to clean them up -- they can cause intestinal blockages, which can be a serious health problem for your cat. It’s given that cats are going to groom themselves, so what can you do to keep hairballs to a minimum?
What Causes Hairballs in Cats?
Hairballs may be disgusting, but they develop as a result of your cat’s healthy and fastidious grooming routine.
When your cat grooms themselves, tiny hook-like structures on their tongue catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problems. But if some hair stays in the stomach, it can form a hairball. Usually, your cat will vomit the hairball to get rid of it. Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they often appear thin and tube-like, rather than round.
Hairballs in cats are more likely to appear in long-haired breeds, such as Persians and Maine Coons. Cats that shed a lot or who groom themselves compulsively are also more likely to have hairballs, because they tend to swallow a lot of fur. You may have noticed that your cat didn’t have hairballs as a kitten, but developed them as they grew. This is quite normal -- as cats get older they become more adept groomers and therefore more proficient at removing fur from their coats with their tongues, which means more hairballs for you to clean up.
Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats
It can be disturbing to watch (and hear) your cat eliminating a hairball. Some common hairball symptoms include hacking, gagging, and retching. Usually, your cat will then vomit the hairball in relatively short order.
If you notice the following hairball symptoms, be sure to contact your veterinarian, as they could indicate that a hairball has caused a potentially life-threatening blockage:
- Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball
- Lack of appetite
4 Hairball Remedies
Nothing can be done to totally prevent hairballs in cats, but there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood your cat will have hairballs or reduce their frequency.
- Groom your cat regularly. The more fur you remove from your cat, the less fur that will end up as hairballs in their stomach. Combing or brushing your cat on a daily basis can be an effective way to minimize hairballs, and it can also provide a fun way for you to bond with your cat. If you can’t get your cat accustomed to brushing, think about taking them to a professional groomer for a grooming and haircut (especially for long-haired cats) every six months or so.
- Give your cat a specialized “hairball formula” cat food. Many pet food manufacturers now make hairball-reduction cat foods. These high-fiber formulas are designed to improve the health of your cat’s coat, minimize the amount of shedding, and encourage hairballs in cats to pass through the digestive system.
- Use a hairball product or laxative. There are a number of different hairball products on the market today, most of which are mild laxatives that help hairballs pass through the digestive tract.
- Discourage excessive grooming. If you suspect that your cat’s hairballs are a result of compulsive grooming, try to train your cat to do another enjoyable activity instead of licking their coat. This might include teaching them to play with a new toy on their own or finding a fun toy you can play with together.