Hairballs in Cats – It’s Not What You Think!

Fluffy Mia has a higher rate of hairballs than her short haired sister

If you live with a cat, you know you’ve been there. It’s the middle of the night. You wake up feeling like your bladder may rupture, so you stumble half asleep out of bed, plodding dumbly down the hall to the bathroom. Then suddenly you feel it. At first, it seems like maybe just a little moisture between your toes. But as you step down you feel the goo, the glob of wet furry grossness against your bare foot. And you know. You’ve been hairballed.

All cats get hairballs, it’s just a normal part of sharing your life with a cat. Right? Right? Well, as it turns out, there may be more to these nasty little products of feline vomit that are all too common.

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What Exactly is a Hairball and Why Should We Care? 

A hairball (or trichobezoar) is a tubular wad of vomited hair (typically deposited in the most inappropriate locations your feline friend can come up with). In cats with a healthy digestive tract, hair ingested as a result of normal grooming behavior should easily pass through into the feces. As cats in the wild normally have short coats, cats with long fur or cats that overgroom due to skin problems, pain, or behavioral disorders may swallow more hair than the gastrointestinal tract can process normally.

Despite popular myths, frequent vomiting in cats is not just a sign of “hairballs.” It is not normal and should be considered a warning sign of an underlying digestive, allergic, or metabolic disorder. Usually, the hairballs themselves don’t cause many problems, they are just a warning sign that something may be wrong. However, in extreme cases, obstructions can occur.

It is essential to note the difference between vomiting and coughing. Vomiting is usually preceded by gagging and retching, followed by the expulsion of fluid, hair, or food. This shouldn’t be confused with coughing, in which the cat will extend the neck and hack or wheeze. Coughing can be the sign of airway or allergic disease. If you are unsure what your cat is doing, it’s always a good idea to take a video to share with your vet.

So once we’ve established that kitty has been puking, what is a vomit-weary owner to do? Well, in order to correct the problem, first we have to find out what that problem might be.

What’s All This Licking For???

All normal, healthy cats lick and groom themselves. But when it becomes excessive the cat may swallow more hair than normal digestion can process, leading to the formation of hairballs. So why in the world would a cat want to swallow all that hair, anyway? There are at least three major categories of felines that swallow too much hair: itchy kitties, painful kitties, and crazy kitties.

Itchy kitties may never scratch, and in many cases can be “closet lickers”. Fleas are usually the main culprit. Make sure your kitty is on an effective flea and tick medication from your veterinarian. Even if you don’t see bugs, felines are fastidious groomers and often swallow fleas before the slow humans can spot them. Other causes of itchiness can include allergies, parasites, or fungal infections.

Painful kitties can sometimes be more difficult to spot. As you know, cats are notoriously stoic, so just because your furry friend doesn’t cry out doesn’t mean they are not hurting. Arthritis, cystitis or bladder infections, anal sac problems, or pancreatitis are just a few of the painful conditions that may lead to excessive licking and chewing in cats.

Crazy kitties. Whew. Aren’t we all??? Compulsive licking is actually extremely rare (although possible). It is often a diagnosis of exclusion after all of the potential medical causes of excessive licking have been ruled out by the veterinarian. If this is suspected, a consultation with a veterinary behavior specialist is probably warranted.

Is Something Serious Lurking Inside?

When over-grooming isn’t causing the hairballs, it’s time to look inside. There are more causes of chronic vomiting than there are internal organs in cats. Veterinarians will need a good history to start a list of ideas specific to your feline. This includes a thorough dietary history (and don’t shy away from details – they’re not there to judge, just fix!), hunting behavior, age, duration of the problem, etc.

A series of tests by your veterinarian can help rule out some of the more common causes. In older cats, thyroid disease, kidney disease, dehydration, diabetes, and cancer are all at the top of the list. Parasites or former injuries also need to be investigated. Chronic conditions such as megaesophagus, ileus, inflammatory bowel disease, or gallbladder disease have all been implicated in cases of frequent “hairballs” in cats.

Sometimes the diagnosis is not as straightforward and may require imaging studies including x-rays, contrast studies, or ultrasound to find the cause. Occasionally endoscopy or intestinal biopsies may be warranted.

While all of these things can be stressful and overwhelming (not to mention expensive) for owners, in the long run it can save a lot of time and grief. By identifying any potentially serious conditions early, the chances of a successful outcome will be much greater.

When Are Hairballs Just Hairballs?

So now that we know how serious this seemingly benign condition can be, is it time to flee to the vet in a panic? Well, not necessarily. If your kitty vomits more than twice per year, it is certainly time to discuss this with your vet. And don’t forget to check out the American Association of Feline Practitioners (of which my Mom is a member) for more information.

Of course, there are some things you can do to aid digestion and keep things moving. Remember, these are just some small things you can do while you are working on identifying the underlying cause.

  • Feed a hairball diet according to your vet’s recommendations. Or (my personal favorite option) hairball treats.
  • Increase water consumption. As mentioned before, dehydration slows gastrointestinal emptying, leading to hair accumulation in the stomach and esophagus. Feeding canned food can help improve hydration. However, this may not be a good option for some cats with stomach sensitivities or allergies. Adding a Pet Fountain or sometimes just leaving a faucet dripping can encourage many felines to drink more.
  • Using Hairball Remedies designed to aid in cat gut motility can also be helpful in many cases.
  • Frequent brushing, especially in long-haired cats can help decrease loose hair. I love my FURminator to really help with shedding.

So when it’s all said and done, most cases of “hairballs” are no cause for panic. But they are also nothing to ignore. Chronic vomiting shouldn’t be an accepted “normal” part of cat ownership. And besides, who’s really gonna miss the wet hairball between the toes in the middle of the night?

Dr. Pebbles the Blind Cat

If you have any veterinary questions you would like to read about in a post or more specific questions you would like addressed in an upcoming newsletter, you can contact me directly and I’ll do my best to answer! And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter.

Until next time… Keeping Pebbles Strong.


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