Cat Hairballs. Ugh. I don’t appreciate mornings when I wake up and get out of bed only to step on something soft, squishy, and wet. Yes, even as a cats-only veterinarian for over 20 years, my cats do have episodes of feline vomiting, and the sight of a cat hair ball or fur ball still is an unpleasant one.
Cat lovers everywhere know that awful feeling of accidentally stepping on our cats hairballs. We all know that scary sight of cat vomit on our rugs. Sometimes our hearts skip a beat thinking that one of our feline friends used the rug as a litter box.
Cat owners have often brought their cats in to see me and told me the diagnosis before I even had a chance to hear the history or examine the cat. "It's hairballs, Doc, I'm sure it is."
While this can indeed be the case, cats that cough or vomit can certainly suffer from a number of other cat illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism in cats, cat diabetes, feline kidney disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. The unfortunate fact is that a cat with a hairball and a cat with asthma and a cat with just about anything that can cause a cough or gagging in a cat all look the same when they assume that crouched over position and start heaving/wheezing/coughing. You know the one I mean.
Only with a good physical exam by your veterinarian and sometimes x-rays, can you find out for sure which problem is affecting your cat. So don't just automatically assume every cough or gag is due to hairballs.
On the other end of the spectrum are the owners that refuse to believe me when I tell them their cat's problem is most likely cat hairballs. They tell me, "Doc, there is never hair in the vomit and he never throws up a hairball, so it can't be hairballs that are the source of the problem.
However, that is not true. There can be hair in your cat's GI tract that is irritating and causing vomiting even though it is not coming up. There can also be large hairballs in the stomach that are too large to come back up.
However, feline hairballs are quite often the culprit behind these feline illness symptoms.
Fortunately, there are solutions!
What are Cat Hairballs?
Cats hairballs are basically clumps of moist, undigested cat fur, mixed with digestive fluids and bile, that usually show up on the floor in your house in somewhat of a cylindrical shape, almost like a cigar. These are usually elongated and slender due to the way the moistened hair passes up through the narrow esophagus, and can be anywhere from an inch to a few or even several inches long.
Most times, if you look closely at a cat hairball, you could actually see individual, interwoven hairs that make up the ball of fur. But doing so kind of takes you back to the days of biology class and dissecting owl pellets, so I would understand not wanting to look that closely.
Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?
Cats get hairballs because of their self-grooming habits, and specifically, because of the way their tongues are designed. To learn more, please read The Cat Tongue: The Amazing, Barbed, Self-Grooming Tool.
Signs of Hairballs in Cats
If you have ever seen a cat trying to bring up a hairball, you know how alarming the sight can be. Your cat will retch and gag and hack, often looking like he is choking. Between the awful sounds and the posture your cat assumes, it’s hard to believe that most cat hairballs are harmless.
The truth is that your cat with hairballs is very uncomfortable, and could, if not properly treated, develop problems with vomiting or constipation or, even worse, an intestinal obstruction that requires surgery for hairballs that are too large to pass through stool or vomit.
Are Cat Hairballs Your Cat's Problem?
Chances are, what you really want to know is why cats get hairballs, and most importantly, the steps for preventing hairballs in cats
For all that, and much more, please see the article I wrote for The Cat Fancier’s Association newsletter.
You'll learn exactly how you can decrease or even eliminate hairballs in your cat!