Most cat owners realize that cats spend a large portion of their day laying around and grooming themselves—and that’s just about it! With all that grooming, cat owners also realize that the occasional hairball is bound to appear on their floor every once in a while. It’s just something that happens with cats.
But are hairballs actually hazardous to your cats? Does puking up a wet clump of hair cause harm to our beloved feline friends? The short answer is, not usually. However, there are rare occasions where hairballs can move further through the digestive system than they should, where they can have painful—and potentially fatal—consequences.
The cause of hairballs
The origin of your cat’s hairballs is pretty self-explanatory. With a pet that spends half its day grooming itself, some hair is bound to end up in the stomach. Hairballs are more likely in adult cats that have more thoroughly developed their grooming skills and are particularly prevalent in long-haired cat breeds, since there is a lot more hair to swallow.
Cats actually have hook-like structures on their tongues that grip onto dead hair, bringing it into the mouth where it is eventually swallowed. Cats aren’t able to digest hair on their own, so these hairs typically make their way through the cat’s digestive system, exiting intact as waste in the litter box.
However, some hairs can get stuck in the stomach where they eventually form a clump. Undigestible, the only way out is usually up, which leaves your cat gagging, hacking and puking until the hairball is out of their system. It’s a distinct (and rather gross) situation many feline lovers have witnessed firsthand.
When hairballs become dangerous
Vomiting up hairballs is usually not an issue, albeit a little uncomfortable—both for the cat and for you when you have to clean it up! However, in some cases, hairballs move down into the intestines before they are brought up. If the intestines lack proper lubricant or the hairball is too big, it could cause a painful and scary blockage inside your cat’s digestive tract.
Blockages are a serious issue that should be addressed by a vet as soon as possible so they can be removed. Watch out for these symptoms to tell if your cat may have an intestinal blockage caused by a hairball:
- Continuous gagging or hacking without producing a hairball
- Routine vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Swollen or hard abdomen
It’s important to stress, again, that hairballs in the digestive tracts are rare and even when they do occur, can be treated with ease. Just be sure to consult with a vet if your cat is acting strange.
Although the occasional hairball won’t harm your cat, there are a few steps you can take to prevent them or make them easier for your cat to get rid of. These measures can cut down the chances of your cat developing a hairball that turns into a dangerous bowel obstruction:
- Regular grooming: To help your cat remove dead hair from their coat so it doesn’t end up in their stomachs, brush them with a wire brush a few times a week, but preferably every day. Most cats love to be brushed as part of their grooming regimen and this process will also help you bond more with your kitty. For long-haired cats, take them to a groomer to have their hair cut every few months in addition to regular brushing.
- Ample moisture: One of the major problems cats run into while trying to pass a hairball is that their intestinal tract lacks adequate lubrication, or moisture, to move the hairball through. This is particularly problematic for cats that eat dry food. Make sure your cat has ample water supply and consider switching it to wet food or a hairball-specific diet that’s rich in fiber.
- Hairball supplements: There are a number of supplements and other products on the market that act as mild laxatives for your cat to help it pass a hairball.
- Cat grass: Many cats have a strange obsession with eating grass, even though it makes them sick. Some experts suggest that growing a small planter of cat grass for your cat to eat can help aid them in throwing up or passing hairballs and preventing them from getting suck.
Although hairballs are widely associated with cats as a common and almost necessary thing, that doesn’t have to be the case. Regular brushing can cut down on the large amount of hair your cat ingests during daily grooming, while changes to the diet or supplement treatments can help your cat pass indigestible hair or clumps, should they form.
Even if you are used to your cat throwing up hairballs, monitor them to make sure they actually vomit up the hair and that they aren’t just gagging. This sign can be one of the first that indicates that something more serious is happening with your kitty.