I’ll never forget my first rite of passage into cat parenthood. It was a cold, dark morning and I, barely conscious, was walking through the house in my bare feet, when suddenly…sweet mother of God! Directly underneath my foot I felt something cold, clammy, and slippery that literally squished itself up between my toes. The dreaded hairball!
At the time of this writing, we are now on the brink of summer and cat hairball season is in full swing. As our furry felines “blow” their winter coats in preparation for warmer weather, all that loose and dying hair has to go somewhere (besides all over the house, that is!) Unfortunately, since cats are fastidious self-groomers, some of this hair also winds up in their stomachs, where it can cause all sorts of problems.
What Causes Hairballs?
Ironically, it’s the very nature of a cat’s cleanliness and uniquely designed anatomy that leads to the creation of the gross and unsavory hairball. Cat tongues are covered with backward-facing barbs called papillae. In the wild, papillae help with pulling meat from the bones of prey, removing external parasites like fleas and ticks, and allowing the cat keep her coat clean and free of debris.
Unfortunately, these barbs also trap and hold dead hair coming off the cat’s coat, which is ultimately swallowed when she grooms herself. Since cats spend up to 10 percent of their waking hours grooming, this can add up to a fairly large amount of hair.
Anatomy Of A Hairball
To truly appreciate the nature of a hairball, it’s helpful to understand the hair that makes it up.
A cat’s coat consists of 3 distinct types of hair:
- Guard hairs – These longer, stiffer hairs on the outer layer of the coat help keep the cat dry by repelling water. They also determine the color of the haircoat.
- Awn hairs – These finer hairs form the cat’s basic overall coat.
- Undercoat – These are the downy soft, very fine hairs underneath the coat that act as insulation to help keep the cat warm. It’s the undercoat that is shed the most, mats the most easily, and makes up most of the hair that a cat ingests while grooming.
Unfortunately for our cats, hair is made up of a tough, insoluble protein called keratin that is completely indigestible. When hair is swallowed, it sticks together in the stomach and forms a round clump called a “trichobezoar”. Once in the GI tract, this clump of hair only has 2 places it can go – onward through the GI tract (where it exits the cat’s body mixed with feces), or back up through the esophagus.
When a hairball is regurgitated, those soft, fine hairs of the undercoat get molded into a long, cylindrical shape that looks like a cigar as it comes back up through the esophagus. The hair is mixed with traces of food, digestive fluids, and bile, which give it a color that is usually slightly darker than the cat’s fur and may have a greenish tinge. The digestive fluids also give it that special “squishy” consistency you feel if you’re unlucky enough to step on a fresh one!
Hairballs can vary in size (anywhere from less than an inch to several inches long, and up to an inch thick), and usually don’t have much odor.
Are Hairballs Dangerous?
Most swallowed hair is able to pass through a cat’s GI tract without much fanfare. And although the site of your poor cat retching up a hairball can be quite alarming, there’s usually no cause for worry.
However, the longer that hair remains in the stomach, the more hair that gets added to it. Then when the stomach and intestines go through their normal contractions to push food through the GI tract, these trapped hairs can actually act as tiny little razors, creating microscopic cuts in the lining of the GI tract. This leads to a condition called “hair gastritis”, which creates a source of great discomfort for the cat. It can cause vomiting (with or without bringing up hair), loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain.
Hair trapped in the lower GI tract can also cause constipation. In the worst case, if the clump of hair becomes too large to move through the GI tract, or the cat is unable to vomit it up, it can cause an obstruction that needs to be surgically removed.
Obviously it’s in everyone’s best interest to prevent hairballs before they happen! Here are a few ways you can reduce the incidences of hairballs in your kitty.
Brush your cat daily to remove excess hair.
This is especially important for long-haired cats or cats who groom themselves (or other cats in the household) frequently. Invest in a quality comb and slicker brush, or better yet, in a de-shedding tool such as the FURminator, which is specifically designed to remove undercoat.
After brushing, wipe your cat down with a damp towel to remove any loose hair. Long-haired cats may also benefit from periodic trips to the groomer.
Increase the fiber in your cat’s diet.
You can safely increase your cat’s fiber intake by offering her a tablespoon of canned pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling) or a teaspoon of psyllium once or twice a week. You can also provide your cat with kitty grass that you can grow indoors yourself.
Just be careful not to add too much fiber too quickly, as a sudden increase can cause stomach upset and/or diarrhea.
Give your cat a commercial hairball prevention product.
There are several flavored hairball remedy pastes or gels that act as intestinal lubricants by grabbing the hair and helping to move it through the GI tract. Since these are usually flavored with chicken, tuna, or malt, most cats will lick them right off your finger. If your cat won’t take it from your finger, you can gently open his mouth slightly and wipe a small dollop onto the roof of his mouth.
These products can be used for several days in a row as treatment for cats who are actively experiencing hairball issues, or used every 1-2 weeks to prevent hairballs from forming.
Increase the moisture in your cat’s diet.
The better hydrated your cat is, the easier it is to flush hair out of his system. If your cat only eats dry food, try offering canned food in addition to dry. Cats are also drawn to plug-in kitty water fountains. Most cats find them fascinating, and it encourages them to drink more.
Feed your cat a specialized diet to reduce the formation of hairballs.
Ask your veterinarian to recommend a hairball-prevention commercial cat food. These diets are specially formulated to improve the condition of the skin and haircoat, which reduces shedding. They also have a high fiber content, which helps push the hair through the GI tract.
Play with your cat regularly.
Cats who groom excessively often benefit from multiple play periods throughout the day, which distracts them from over-grooming. Toys and videos made just for cats also provide mental stimulation and can help keep cats focused on something other than cleaning themselves.
Not All Vomiting Is Due To Hairballs
Keep in mind that not all vomiting cats are suffering from hairballs. If your cat is experiencing repeated episodes of vomiting, is lethargic, or refuses to eat, he should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible to rule out other illnesses.
Repeated vomiting can also be caused by an intestinal obstruction, which can sometimes occur in cats with chronic hairball issues. Swallowed hair can become trapped in the sphincter leading from the stomach to the small intestine, or further down the GI tract in the small intestine. I once had a cat who developed a hair impaction that became stuck right between the poor little guy’s lower colon and rectum. The impaction had to be removed with forceps while he was under sedation, and when they took it out, it was a dried, solid mass about 2 inches long and as hard as concrete!
If your cat is losing weight, not eating, coughing and retching without producing hair or vomit, or is not producing stool, see your veterinarian immediately to rule out an intestinal obstruction.
Dealing With a Hairy Situation
Most cats experience hairball issues at some point in their lives. Being aware of what contributes to hairballs (shedding season, cats with longer hair coats, cats who groom themselves more frequently, and cats who tend to groom other cats in the household) can allow you to take preventive measures to help stop hairballs before they start.
And keep in mind…the next time your cat gifts you with a hairball, as disgusting as it may be, it’s far better to know that the hairball is safely outside your cat rather than stuck inside! 🙂
How have you treated your cat’s hairballs? Do you have any “Hairball from Hell” stories you’d like to share? Please tell us about it in the comments below!