Most cat owners have woken up to an unfortunate surprise at some point: a little ball of tangled hairs lying in a pool of vomit. Why would your cat do such a thing? Does he hate you? Let’s find out!
What is a hairball?
Healthy cats spend a good portion of their time grooming themselves. They achieve this mostly by using their sticky tongue to scoop up loose hairs and dirt.
As a consequence of the ritual, most loose hairs are swallowed and will pass through the bowels undigested, until they are eventually pooped out. But not all loose hairs share the same fate.
Some of these ingested hairs may get stuck in the throat or in the stomach. Over time, as these start to accumulate, they will eventually start clotting up and form a ball. This is a natural process and is nothing to worry about.
Most cats produce about one hairball per month on average. If you encounter one, there’s no immediate cause for concern: the appearance of a hairball is actually a sign that your cat is taking very good care of herself!
Are they dangerous?
Most ingested hairs pass through the bowels without causing any trouble. But once too many hairs get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract, after a while they can start to harden and irritate the lining of the stomach. In the worst scenario, they may even cause a total blockage and will need to be removed surgically.
When this happens, cats will instinctively start to eat grass and other greens in an effort to trigger a vomiting reflex.
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 cat breeds have longer hairs than others. Species with more hair are also more likely to cough up hairballs because they have to wash more frequently. Excessive licking from eczema, anxiety, pain, or allergic reactions can also increase the odds of hairball formation.