What You Need to Know About Hairballs

Hairballs are widely recognized as par for the course when owning a cat. This is actually a huge misconception; they are not to be mistaken for healthy cat behavior!

What are they?

Healthy cats spend a good portion of their time grooming themselves. This is mostly done by employing their sticky tongue to scoop up loose hairs and dirt, which is then swallowed and moved through the digestive tract. Most ingested hairs pass through the bowels and are pooped out without any issue. But when some hairs get stuck, after a while they can start to clot, harden, and irritate the lining of the stomach.

Cats keep their fur healthy by scooping up loose hairs. One of the ways they achieve this is by collecting them with their sticky tongue.

Now, most of the time, cats will be able to expel these clotted hairs through the act of vomiting. But in those rare cases where a cat is unable to expel the clot, it may eventually lead to an obstruction that can be very harmful and may even require surgery to be removed. Indeed, we’re talking about a serious issue here!

When do they become dangerous?

The occasional hairball probably isn’t much to worry about. Since coughed-up hairs are being expelled, they’re no longer stuck in the digestive tract and can not form any blockages. However, when you start to encounter hairballs very frequently, it’s worth investigating whether your cat might be shedding too much and/or developing blockages.

A hairball lying on the floor

How to recognize obstructions

The number one thing to look out for is dry heaving. This is a fancy word that means a cat is gagging but not throwing up (or not producing any vomit). If this is the case, your cat needs to see a vet immediately. Other potential signs of blockages are reduced appetite, lethargy, and strange movements.

Remember that cats have a tendency to hide their struggles from the world, which can make it quite difficult for owners to recognize when something’s wrong. If you suspect there might be a more serious issue, do not shy away from calling a veterinary professional for advice.

Increased shedding

Another potential concern when you see a lot of hairballs is the possibility that your cat has started shedding more, and therefore is ingesting too many hairs during grooming. It’s difficult to tell how much is too much, since every breed is different. Again, don’t be afraid to consult your veterinarian if you’re unsure.

What can I do to prevent hairballs?

As we discussed earlier in the article, the formation of hairballs is not something that’s completely beyond your influence. There are several measures you can take as an owner to reduce the number of hairs your cat is ingesting:

#1: Frequent grooming

A solid grooming ritual will go a long way towards removing loose hairs, which means your kitty will swallow less of them. Cats with long coats need to be brushed very often, at least twice a week, and even more frequently during shedding season!

Tip: Shedding season for cats starts during spring, when the lengthening of daylight hours triggers the shedding of the additional hair that was needed to stay warm during winter. The opposite effect occurs during fall, when the shortening of daylight triggers extra growth to prepare for the coming winter.

Frequent grooming should not be considered an extra measure for long-haired breeds, but rather a necessity! Removing any loose hairs before they get swallowed is a huge first step towards preventing hairballs and obstructions, so give your kitty a good brush. She will probably thank you for it!

#2: Cat grass

Have you ever seen a cat nibble on grass? It’s almost as if they enjoy it. The surprising reason for this is that cats instinctively eat grass and other greens in an effort to trigger a vomiting reflex, which helps them expel clotted hairs.

Cat grass helps cats trigger their gag reflex

Cat grass is an umbrella term for several species of grass that are sold specifically to be chewed and swallowed by cats. This is very helpful to a cat that’s trying to cough up hairs. That’s why we highly recommend growing a patch of cat grass for your own cat(s)! Oh, by the way, it has a number of other surprising benefits as well!

#3: Anti-shedding shampoo

There are shampoos for sale that inhibit shedding. It might be a challenge to get your cat to tolerate being bathed, however, and you may incur some scratch marks during the process. If your cat particularly hates baths, you may want to try anti-shedding wipes instead.

#4: Spaying and neutering

Desexed cats have more steady hormonal fluctuations, which has an inhibiting effect on shedding. If you do not plan on ever having kittens, consider having your cat spayed or neutered to reduce shedding to a minimum.

#5: Dietary tips

  • Custom diets can help reduce the number of hairs that are ingested. Many of these foods contain dietary insoluble fiber, which helps pass things through the intestines. This will ensure that more of the ingested hairs are excreted through feces. A good example of a diet food with a high amount of fiber is Royal Canin Fibre Response.
  • Another trick to help keep things moving is to give smaller portions throughout the day instead of the usual large ones at breakfast and dinner.
  • Special anti-hairball treats are available on the market, but we are yet to find any science-backed evidence that they actually work. Feel free to let us know if you find any!

Frequently asked questions

From what age do cats start to produce hairballs?

Kittens start to groom themselves from roughly the age of 3 weeks. Before that time, they are usually washed by their mothers. After 6 weeks most kittens have become proficient at washing themselves. That is also the time when hairballs can start to show up.

Why do only some cats throw up hairballs?

Some cat breeds have longer hairs than others. Species with more hair are also more likely to cough up hairballs because they wash more frequently. Excessive licking from eczema, anxiety, pain, or allergic reactions can also increase the amount of hairs that are being ingested.

Can hairballs be fatal?

While very rare, hairballs can indeed be lethal if they lead to an obstruction that is not resolved in time. If you encounter a lot of them, be sure to step up your grooming game.

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