By Dr. Eric Eisenman
Cat hairball (formally called trichobezoars) are simply the result of your cat grooming him/herself. When cats gives themselves a bath, they end up swallowing a lot of loose hair. A portion of the hair passes through the gastrointestinal tract, while some still remains in the stomach. The hair that is left in the stomach clumps into a wet, partially-digested wad that the body eventually rejects by vomiting. When the clump of hair passes through a cat’s esophagus, it molds into a tubular shape. This shape is what can sometimes confuse pet owners to mistake a hairball for feces.
There are certain characteristics cats may have that make them more predisposed to hairballs than others, such as:
Cats that shed a lot of hair (this can be related to warmer weather or stress)
Anxious cats that over-groom themselves
Older cats that are more experienced groomers
When Should You Worry?
Cat hairballs are not uncommon and are generally nothing to worry about. Depending on the cat, it can be normal to have a hairball once a week.
Although rare, large hairballs can sometimes become lodged in the intestines, leading to a life-threatening obstruction. In this case, you should monitor your cat for decreased to absent appetite, vomiting, and lethargy.
Some cats also make hacking and coughing sounds often, making it hard to differentiate a cough, vomit, wheeze or regurgitation. In cases like these, we often ask our members to take a video using Fuzzy Connect and include a description of anything produced. Your vet should be able to tell if everything looks normal.
How To Limit Cat Hairballs
To decrease or prevent cat hairballs, here are a few tips:
Use a grooming tool (we love the Furminator). If your cat tolerates it, regular and consistent brushing can greatly decrease the abundant shed hair that can be ingested during grooming.
Talk to your vet about medications that lubricate the gastrointestinal tract and prevent hairballs.
Take your cat to a local groomer. If not too stressful for your cat, this can be an easy way to keep the fuzz under control once or twice a year.