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Hairballs in Cats - Causes & Treatment

What are hairballs?

Also known as  "trichobezoars" (pronounced trike-oh-bee-zohr), hairballs are balls of hair which are vomited from the stomach.

What causes cats to cough up hairballs?

Any cat owner will have observed their cat spending countless hours grooming itself. When the cat does this, loose hairs are ingested. More often than not, the hairs pass through the digestive system and are passed out in the faeces.

Sometimes excessive amounts of hair accumulate in the stomach which can't be passed through into the faeces, causing irritation. Your cat will gag and cough and eventually vomit up a sausage shaped hairball. Long-haired breeds are more likely to develop hairballs than shorthaired ones, also cats who groom excessively are more prone,  but they can occur in any cat. Spring can make the problem worse due to increased shedding.

If this happens occasionally it is not of concern, but if it is a frequent occurrence it is important to speak to your veterinarian about it as it may be a sign something more serious is causing your cat to regularly vomit hairballs such as a blockage.

What are the symptoms of hairballs:

The main symptom your cat has is when he vomits up a hairball. These are typically cylindrical in shape, a brownish colour and predominantly made up of cat hair, but will also contain other material from the stomach.

Other symptoms your cat may display, especially if the hairball is causing an intestinal blockage include:

If your cat is displaying any of the above symptoms, you should seek the advice of your veterinarian immediately.

Preventing hairballs in cats:

Regular grooming of your cat will reduce the amount of hair it swallows during grooming. This is especially important if your cat is longhaired or has a particularly thick coat.

Grow some catnip or cat grass: Some suggest that eating catnip or cat grass can help your cat by providing extra fibre which in turn helps with the passage of hairballs.

How are hairballs treated?

There are two methods of treatment. Adding extra fibre to the diet, or the introduction of lubricants, which assist with the passage of hairballs.

Hairball diet - If hairballs are a regular problem, your veterinarian may recommend a special "hairball" diet for your cat. These work by adding fibre to the diet, which assists with the passage of hairballs, they also improve skin and hair condition, which in turn reduces shedding.

Hairball remedies: These products are usually non-digestible oil type products which help lubricate the digestive system and aid the movement of the hairball to the bowel.

Home treatment for hairballs:

Adding a teaspoon of canned or boiled pumpkin into the food. This adds fibre to the diet, which can assist in the passage of hairballs.

A small amount of Vaseline (petroleum jelly) given to your cat can also help with the passage of hairballs. Add 1/2 tablespoon to your cat's food (obviously canned food is required). If your cat refuses to eat the food, you can smear the same amount onto his paw. Be warned, this can be messy. If your cat is prone to hairballs, try adding Vaseline 2-3 times a week. An alternative to Vaseline is is to add 1-2 teaspoons butter to the diet, at the same frequency.

Are hairballs dangerous?

In most cases no, they are not dangerous but if your cat is frequently suffering from hairballs then it can be an indication that the hair in the digestive system has impacted, which can cause gastrointestinal blockages preventing your cat from vomiting or defecating. It has been observed that hairballs the size of baseballs have been removed from the stomachs of cats.

Symptoms of a serious problem include a swollen and hard stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite. It is important to see your veterinarian immediately. 

Also see:

How to groom a cat