How to Handle Hairballs

If you have a cat, you've almost certainly experienced your cat's hairballs (lucky you if you haven't!). In fact, you're probably intimately familiar with the sound of the cat about to "cough up" a hairball - hopefully not on the couch...or the carpet...or the bed! But do you know why Kitty gets hairballs and how to deal with them? 

You see, cats are typically fastidious groomers and therefore ingest a significant amount of hair every time they groom themselves. Because hair is indigestible, it usually sits in the stomach until enough is accumulated to produce a signal that induces vomiting. Even though people often say their cat is “coughing up a hairball,” this is not the correct terminology. The hair is coming from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, not the respiratory tract (lungs). 

Every cat is different in how much hair they ingest while grooming. Cats usually shed more during the summer months, mostly due to the longer length of daylight, not necessarily the temperature. Cats will also groom more if fleas or other external parasites are present. An average cat will vomit up a hairball once or twice a month, and the vomit may also contain food or bile (a yellowish fluid). While long-haired cats are typically the ones to suffer the most from hairballs, short-haired cats also have them.

While most cats don't suffer any significant ill-effects from the occasional hairball, if your cat gets them often, there are products that can help alleviate the problem. Hairball diet formulas are designed to help cats pass the hairball in the feces and therefore limit the amount of vomiting. There are also numerous over-the-counter and prescription hairball remedies, such as Laxatone or CatLax. These lubricate the intestines to help facilitate hairball passage into the colon, much like flavored petroleum jelly. (You may need to try different brands/flavors before you find one Kitty will accept.)

Hairballs are not a health concern unless the vomiting becomes more frequent or the cat will not eat and acts sick. Occasionally, a large hairball (trichobezoar) will get stuck in the stomach or small intestine and cause an obstruction. If this happens, the hairball will need to be removed surgically. Symptoms will include lethargy, vomiting, anorexia, abdominal pain and dehydration. If Kitty exhibits any of these symptoms, you should bring him to see his veterinarian as soon as possible!

If your cat is vomiting hairballs more than twice a month, ask your veterinarian if a remedy would be recommended. If your cat is acting lethargic or vomiting frequently, he/she should be examined by your veterinarian.

This blog post originally appeared on The Drake Center

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