When Hairballs Become Hazardous
It’s the unmistakable sound that sends cat owners leaping out of bed (or, alternatively, pulling the covers over your head): dear kitty hacking up a hairball. In that moment, it feels like the biggest problem is that the hairball landed on the carpet instead of the tile. But hairballs can be more than just a nuisance. In fact, hairballs can be a sign of medical problems, require surgery or, in rare cases, lead to death. Fortunately, hairballs are preventable, and the underlying issues that cause them are treatable. Let’s untangle the truth about hairballs.
Getting to the Source of Hairballs
So why is Whiskers hawking hairballs? There are two primary causes of hairballs: over-grooming and digestive issues. Cats groom (lick) themselves to keep their fur and skin clean, and they consume hair during this process. Ideally, the strands will move smoothly through the digestive system and come out the other end, easy peasy. The problem occurs when the hair builds up and blocks the digestive tract. Conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, where the GI tract isn’t functioning properly, are often the reason behind hairballs.
Causes of Hairballs
- Due to pain
- Due to stress
- Grooming other cats in the home
- Digestive problems
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Kidney disease
How to Treat and Prevent Hairballs
Because hairballs can be a sign of serious medical conditions, Angela Gaeto, DVM, of Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Companion Animal Hospital recommends calling your vet if your cat exhibits the following symptoms:
When to Call the Vet about Hairballs
- Having more hairballs than usual
- Lack of appetite
- Coughing, gagging or retching
No matter what’s causing your cat’s hairballs, it’s essential to reduce the amount of hair they’re swallowing. The best way to do this is through regular brushing. There are also hairball medicines on the market that lubricate the hair and help it move through the system more easily. (Dr. Gaeto recommends choosing a petroleum-free product for long-term use to avoid negative side effects, such as anal leakage, liver irritation and decreased vitamin absorption.)
Ways to Prevent Hairballs
- Regular brushing
- Hairball lubricating gel
- Cat food and treats formulated to prevent hairballs
- Identify and treat the underlying issue
“Again, finding the source of your cat’s hairballs is much better than simply treating the symptom,” Dr. Gaeto said. “Since many illnesses can cause hairballs, it’s best to discuss your cat’s health with your veterinarian to come up with an individualized treatment plan for your pet.”
A horrific hairball can put your cat’s nine lives to the test. If your cat can’t expel the hairball on their own, they will need costly surgery to remove it.
“Once, I had a feline patient who had a mass of Christmas tinsel and hair that was quite large and did need surgery to recover,” Dr. Gaeto said.
Hairball Awareness Day is April 26. Spread the word to keep kitties everywhere happy and healthy.