Black and white cat

CATS + HAIRBALLS

08/16/15

Hairballs are a common issue for cats and they can be very unpleasant for pet owners, particularly as cats are very non-selective as to where they choose to deliver the hairball. However, as common as they are, hairballs are usually a sign of a disease process affecting your cat. That said, in most cases, the throwing up of a hairball, if only every week or so, is really of no concern to your cat’s health or well-being.

Causes of hairballs:

Although common, not all cats have a problem with hairballs. They are more common in older cats as well as long-haired cats, but in almost all cases, they are a result of a motility disorder in a cat’s gastrointestinal tract.

Cats are fastidious groomers and the prong like projections on their tongues collect the hair and then it is swallowed. For some cats, the hair simply passes on through the stomach into the intestinal tract along with their daily meals. However, if the stomach is not emptying properly, then the hair doesn’t empty out of the stomach, but rather collects until it is vomited up on a periodic basis. This poor emptying process is usually due to an inflamed stomach and is associated with a condition called inflammatory bowel disease (in people this is known as inflammatory bowel syndrome).  

In the stomach, the hair usually forms into a soft ball and then forms into a tube-like shape when it is vomited up via the oesophagus. If your cat does not vomit up the hairball, there is the risk, although uncommon, that the ball can cause an obstruction, either in the stomach itself, or further down the intestinal tract.

Symptoms of Hairballs:

Other than seeing the hairball itself, most signs of hairballs are quite non-specific.

  • Gagging, hacking or vomiting
  • Hard stool
  • Constipation
  • Decreased appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy

4 Hairball Remedies:

  1. Brush your cat regularly: The less loose fur your cat has, the less likely they are to have hairballs. If your cat has long fur, you may also want to consider giving them a lion cut a couple of times a year. The shaving can also be helpful from a diagnostic point of view, for if the vomiting continues without a lot of hair in it, it would be more worthwhile to pursue the problem as being a more serious form of inflammatory bowel disease, and not just a minor hairball issue. Grooming has the added bonus of not only keeping your cat happy and healthy, but it can also be a great bonding activity! Discussing the best type of brush to use for your cat can be discussed on your next visit to your veterinarian.
  2. Feed them a specialized “hairball formula” cat food: These foods are generally high in fibre with the intent that the extra fibre will enhance the stomach’s motility and aid in passing excess fur through your cat’s digestive system.  There are many different varieties on the market and although they are not successful with every cat, they can help some and your veterinarian will be able to recommend the best choice for your pet.
  3. Use a hairball product: There are specific hairball products on the market that are also intended to aid in the passing of fur. Most of them are petroleum based and are essentially flavoured Vaseline. Although anecdotally they seem to help some cats, there is no scientific evidence to support their use and many veterinarians strongly discourage their use as the petroleum can disrupt the absorptive abilities of the intestinal tract.
  4. Discourage excessive grooming: Compulsive grooming can be discouraged by distracting your cat when you catch them licking and cleaning themselves. This may include giving them a toy or interacting with them in another way.
  5. Anti-inflammatories: Although for a minor hairball problem, the use of steroids like prednisone would be “overkill” in terms of treatment, it may be deemed necessary for more serious cases after an appropriate diagnostic work-up is completed. It is important to remember that hairballs are the result of your cat having a motility problem with its stomach (and likely intestines) and in more serious cases, drugs like prednisone may be the only solution.

When to see your veterinarian:

If your cat vomits up a hairball every week or two and seems completely normal in all other respects, then you really have nothing to worry about, other than the inconvenience of cleaning up the hairball itself. However, if the hairballs are much more frequent, or your cat does not seem quite right or is unwell in other respects, then you should definitely seek your veterinarian’s advice. Based on the frequency and distress that hairball vomiting causes your cat, along with the success or failure of some of the suggestions above, together with your veterinarian, you will be in a position to decide if further diagnostics are warranted to determine the degree of inflammatory bowel disease.