Most cat parents have probably encountered a little ball of fur on the floor at some point. You may have found yourself wondering what the heck this thing is, only to realize that it belongs to your cat after a quick search on Google. So what are hairballs, and why do cats produce them?
How are hairballs created?
Healthy cats spend a great portion of their time grooming themselves. Grooming is mostly done by cats by licking their fur, which enables their sticky tongue to scoop up all the loose hairs that are being shed. During this grooming ritual, most loose hairs are swallowed and will pass through the bowels undigested, until they are eventually pooped out.
The formation of a hairball (or fur ball) can occur when these ingested hairs get stuck somewhere in the throat or in the stomach and start clotting up.
Most cats produce about one hairball per month on average. If you encounter one, there’s no immediate cause for concern: seeing one of these little guys expelled on the floor is actually a sign that your cat is taking very good care of herself!
But there is a dangerous side to hairballs too, especially when these balls are not thrown up or otherwise expelled by your cat. If swallowed hairs get trapped in the stomach or intestines, they can start to irritate the gastrointestinal tract, and in the worst scenario, they may even cause a total blockage.
Are they dangerous?
Most ingested hairs move through the bowels without problems and are eventually expelled through feces. But when too many hairs get stuck in the stomach, after a while they will start to irritate the lining of the stomach. When this happens, cats will instinctively eat grass and other greens in an effort to try to vomit and get rid of the hairball.
When hairballs are not removed in time through vomit or feces, they can start to harden and cause real gastrointestinal problems like blockages and an upset stomach. Some cats may need surgery to get them removed.
How to prevent hairballs
As we discussed earlier on in the article, the formation of hairballs is not something completely random. There are actually several things an owner could do to prevent these little balls from forming in the gastro-intestinal tract:
This is an umbrella term for several species of grass that are sold specifically to be eaten by cats. The main benefit of cat grass is that it invokes vomiting, which helps to remove any hairs that got stuck in the intestinal tract. Cat grass is highly recommended because it has a number of other benefits as well.
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.
One more 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 flavored treats are widely available. These are advertised as specifically designed to prevent and treat hairballs. But is there any truth to these claims?
Frequently asked questions
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.
Some species of cats have longer hairs than others. Species with longer fur are more likely to cough up hairballs because they have to wash more frequently, and the ingested hairs are more likely to get stuck or clot.
Excessive licking from eczema, anxiety, pain, or allergic reactions can also increase the odds of hairball formation.