How to help your senior cat pass a hairball

Q How do hairballs form?

A Your cat’s tongue is an excellent tool for grooming, as its tiny backwards-facing barbs help to pick up stray hairs and remove them from her coat. This is great for preventing matting, but as those barbs also ensure your cat can’t spit the hair back out, it means she will end up swallowing it with every lick. The hair then gathers into a little ball in your cat’s gut, and usually passes out safely and comfortably in her poo. Occasionally, a hairball won’t pass normally and, instead, your cat will vomit up a little sausage-shaped ball of fur. In rare cases, if the hairball won’t come up or pass out, it can cause an uncomfortable tickle in your cat’s stomach. When this happens, she’ll try to regurgitate it and you’ll hear these typical retching noises.

Q How can you tell when a hairball is a problem?

A In healthy cats, the most common symptom of a furball is a ‘cough-gag-retch’ sound – so-called because it’s tricky even for vets to work out if a cat is coughing (clearing the airways by pushing air out of the lungs), gagging (making throat movements to clear an object that’s become stuck) or retching (a noise associated with dry-heaving and vomiting). Occasional hairballs and retching are nothing to worry about, but if your cat is gagging every few weeks, or for more than 48 hours at a time, too much excess hair could be ending up in her gut. She may be over-grooming as a result of a skin condition or an allergy. If you notice your cat licking herself more than usual, or any bald spots appearing on her body, it’s worth discussing allergy testing with your vet.
When it comes to the ‘cough-gag-retch’ reflex, it’s perfectly normal for your cat to do this several times in a single session and the retching action shouldn’t bring up anything except the hairball itself. However, if your cat is bringing up bile it could be a sign of pancreatitis, and you’ll need to see your vet as soon as possible. Other hairball symptoms can include your cat nibbling on grass, as well as constipation and lethargy. If your cat doesn’t pass the hairball, and these signs last for more than two to three days, book a check-up with your vet to make sure nothing else is amiss.

Q Are furballs a cause for concern in older cats?

A Most older cats continue to experience hairballs in much the same way as they did when they were younger, but constipation can be an issue for ageing felines and – on rare occasions – may lead to complications. This is because, as cats age, the movement of food through their digestive tracts slows, which can lead to constipation. Cats who experience pain while defecating (such as those with arthritis) can also become constipated more often. If a cat is constipated, and unable to pass whatever is in her digestive system, hairballs (and potential blockages) could then become a problem. If you notice that your cat hasn’t been using her litter tray as often as usual and seems lethargic, book a check-up with your vet to make sure nothing is amiss.

Q Is that retching noise always due to a furball?

A The problem with hairballs is that they can be confused with other serious health conditions, such as feline asthma. The main symptom of feline asthma is usually a dry cough, but if your cat has developed a sore throat (laryngitis) at the same time, she can make a retching sound similar to bringing up a hairball. Asthmatic cats usually also tend to wheeze, so if you’re in any doubt about which condition it might be, ask your vet for advice.

Q Do furballs ever need veterinary treatment?

A Hairballs may need a prescribed medication if they cause a blockage in your cat’s intestine. While this is quite rare, some elderly cats can suffer from constipation and a hairball could then cause additional problems. So, if your cat was bothered by hairballs in her younger years, or her litter-box habits aren’t as regular as they once were, your vet may prescribe an anti-furball laxative. Its thick, sticky consistency ‘de-fluffs’ your cat’s gut by gathering up all the hair and passing it out safely in her poo.

Q Any prevention tips?

A Brushing your cat regularly with a soft brush can definitely help, and you should aim for a once-a-day grooming session for longhaired breeds, or a weekly one for shorthaired cats. If your cat is prone to furballs, you can also consider an anti-hairball dry food. These kibble-based diets usually contain vitamins and minerals to improve the condition of your cat’s fur and reduce hair loss, plus they have plenty of fibre to help ‘sweep’ the excess fur through her digestive system. By and large, hairballs are a digestive issue rather than a breathing problem, so it’s important to recognise the difference between the two. If your cat is coughing or gagging regularly, never just assume that it’s a hairball. If you’re in any doubt, always have a chat with your vet.