hariballsNo sound is quite as unsettling as the midnight “hack,” “gag,” or “bletch” from Fluffy the cat. Not only is the sight and sound of hairballs being coughed up disturbing, it often also seems equally distressing for our cats. So, what are these mystery lumps of fur, and are they a normal and healthy function of being a cat?

Defining Hairballs

Despite their name, “hairballs” or trichobezoars are not orb shaped as the name implies. Instead, they’re typically thin and cylindrical, a shape formed by emerging through the esophagus. Hairballs are essentially wads of undigested hair along with digestive fluids, bile, and sometimes undigested food.

Even though they’re a disgusting byproduct, hairballs are formed as a result of fastidious grooming by healthy adult kitties. As your cat self-grooms, dead or loose hair will be ingested, and in the best case scenario, they will pass through the digestive system. Since hair isn’t digestible, it makes sense that at some point this undigested mass will be regurgitated.

When it comes to hairballs, breed can make a difference. As one might guess, long-haired cats with thick coats, such as Persians, Himalayans, and Main Coons, tend to produce more hairballs. Hairballs may also become a more frequent occurrence in the spring, as thick winter coats are being shed.

When are Hairballs Cause for Concern?

In a healthy cat, the occasional hairball is usually not a cause for concern (think a few hairballs a year). If your cat is retching up these trichobezoars more often, this is a good reason to have him or her examined. A normal functioning digestive system should be able to work the ingested hair through, where it ends up in the feces.

Chronic hairballs can be caused by a number of issues, including anxiety, gastrointestinal conditions, respiratory problems, and food allergies. Hairballs are typically no longer than an inch, but hairballs can grow large enough to create a GI obstruction. This can cause symptoms like appetite loss, abdominal swelling, dry heaving, and lethargy.

Given the array of underlying issues that can be at work in a cat who frequently coughs up hairballs, it’s important to have your companion examined to rule out any serious problems.

Hairball Prevention

Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for: how to prevent hairballs. Unfortunately, total prevention isn’t a likelihood, but there are certainly ways to keep the late-night “retch fest” to a minimum:

  • Brush your cat at least a few times a week, and consider monthly bathing and grooming services for long-haired breeds.
  • Add a bit of tasty cat grass to your feline’s diet as a good source of fiber. This helps keep hair moving through the digestive tract.
  • Petroleum-based laxatives and food additives can also help undigested hair pass through more easily.
  • Encourage your pet to drink more water to keep the digestive system healthy. We recommend using a water fountain type bowl with filtered water.

If you have any questions about hairballs, the team at Dickinson Animal Hospital welcomes your call.