Cats are naturally very good at keeping themselves clean and tidy, often seen licking their fur and pruning themselves as if in a spa. However, whilst they self groom with their prickly tongues, cats can pick up a lot of loose hair, this is then swallowed and can lead to what we call a cat hairball.
What is a cat hairball?
Loose hair that is collected on the cat's tongue whilst grooming. The prickly/rough tongue that you may feel when your cat licks you, is made up of tiny backwards barbs that are called papillae and are amazing exfoliators.
Whilst this keeps your cat spotless, the hairs can be passed through the digestive tract and out into their faeces, although some hairs remain in their system. These can get dislodged/coughed up/vomited out and expelled as a hairball.
Do not be worried if you see your cat stretch their neck, dry retch (their mouth opening wide) and expel a hairball before calmly walking away. It can be distressing to watch this, but do not worry – it is normal.
How common are cat hairballs?
They are a part of everyday life with cats with their excessive cleaning regimes. Kittens and younger cats usually have fewer hairballs because they are not so in tune with grooming skills at a young age. Older cats, on the other hand, may have grown furrier and may produce hairballs more often. Cats with longer fur, such as Persians and Maine Coons, naturally produce more hairballs as their hair accumulates into a clump faster.
If your cat, however, is having a lot of hairballs and you start to notice them more and more frequently, then a trip to the vet to check up could be warranted. This, can also be problematic with the gastrointestinal tract, in this case, it is best to check this out as soon as possible.
Cats also tend to groom excessively, if they are stressed out, it is like us biting our nails when we become nervous or not sure of something. They will then be more prone to hairballs, again a trip to the vet would make sense to check on their wellbeing.
When can cat hairballs become dangerous?
Hairballs, in general, are harmless but they can, however, be signs of something more serious, if your cat is repeatedly trying to throw something up, has a loss of energy and unwillingness to eat.
Then take them to the vet immediately. It could be a sign that the hairball has moved from their stomach to their intestine.
This is a serious condition that should be addressed by a vet immediately. Additional signs include diarrhoea and constipation.
There are many ways in which a vet may diagnose cat hairballs. This may an x-ray or a physical examination. In extreme cases, surgery may be needed to remove the hairball if it has grown particularly large.
How can you help prevent hairballs in cats?
You can certainly help the build-up of hairballs but not stop them completely.
Help to get rid of any loose hair by brushing your cat, especially if you have a longhaired cat. A lot of cats can be fussy with grooming and don't like to be brushed, in which case you can take your cat regularly to a professional groomer.
Schedule regular haircuts for your cat – Keeping your cat’s coat regularly trimmed means that the hair your cat consumes is less likely to become tangled in a hairball and has a greater chance of passing through her system without incident.
Give your cat hairball-specific food – There is now specific cat food for hairballs. Such food is high in fibre, which helps stop hairballs from forming in the stomach.