Hairballs are one of those things which everyone assumes goes along with cat ownership. Eventually, everyone finds one… often by stepping on it. But, what exactly is a hairball? Why are they unique to cats, and are they really normal? The Merriam-Webster definition of a hairball is “a compact mass of hair formed in the stomach, especially of a shedding animal (as a cat) that cleanses its coat by licking.” Hairballs are certainly not a new thing; the first known use of the term was in 1712.

Cats are prone to hairballs due to the unique structure of their tongues. When your cat grooms himself, tiny hook-like structures on the tongue catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problems. But, if some hair stays in the stomach, it can form a hairball. Your cat will typically vomit the hairball to get rid of it; however, it can move out of the stomach into the intestinal tract, and in rare cases, cause an obstruction. Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they often appear thin and tube-like, rather than round. The primary symptoms of hairballs are periodic hacking, gagging and vomiting. Hairballs may also cause decreased appetite and constipation.

Are hairballs dangerous? Potentially. I have personally seen at least two older cats that had difficulty breathing due to very large hairballs which got stuck in the throat and needed to be extracted under sedation. Fortunately, these things do not occur very often and are typically related with an underlying disease. However, if your cat’s gagging continues for more than one day, please have your cat examined, as coughing due to lower airway disease can look similar to hairball coughing.

Are hairballs normal? Up until recently, they were considered normal for cats, especially long-haired cats. However, a recent study has shown that hairballs should not occur more than twice a month in any cat, and not more than every two months for short-haired cats. The vomiting of frequent hairballs is linked with small intestinal inflammation. The inflammation prevents hair (and sometimes food) from moving through the intestinal tract normally, so the hair accumulates and is vomited back up. If left untreated, this chronic inflammation can lead to intestinal lymphoma (cancer) in later life. So, if your cat has frequent hairballs, there is more going on, and it should be checked out!

So, how can we help prevent hairballs? The most common ways are hairball diets, lubricants such as Laxatone and CatLax, and a newer remedy called Capilex. Hairball diets are formulated to be high in fiber to help “push” the hair through the intestinal tract. I personally do not like hairball diets due to the fact that they are all pellet based, and in general, not good for long-term kitty health. Lubricant remedies are usually made of a non-digestible oil or jelly such as petroleum jelly, with a feline-pleasing flavor like malt or tuna. They help make the hair more slippery so that it can pass easier out of the stomach. Lubricants work well but can be very messy and difficult to give in cats that do not like the flavoring. Capilex is a chewable pill that actually helps gently break down the hairball, allowing the ingested hair to pass naturally in the stool. From personal experience with all three types of preventatives over the years in my own cats, I have found that the Capilex is easiest to give and works the best.

Give us a call at 406-728-0022, if you’d like to discuss your cat’s hairball issues!

April 26th is National Hairball Awareness Day!