Hairballs in cats: everything you should know

It's completely natural for your cat to cough up a hairball now and then, even if the sound they make is a little alarming! But are these little balls of fur ever a problem, and is there anything you can do to prevent them? Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains.

Hairballs are a natural by-product of your cat’s normal grooming routine. Your cat’s tongue is an excellent tool for grooming, as it has tiny, backwards-facing barbs that help to pick up stray hairs and remove them from the cat’s coat. This is great for preventing matting – but as those barbs also ensure the cat can’t spit the hair back out, it means your pet will end up swallowing some hair with every lick. This hair gathers into a little ball in your cat’s gut, and usually passes out safely and comfortably in their poo.

Occasionally, however, a cat hairball doesn’t pass normally and, instead, your cat will vomit up a small, sausage-shaped ball of fur. In rare cases, if the hairball doesn’t pass out or come up naturally, it can cause an uncomfortable tickle in your cat’s stomach. If this happens, they will try to regurgitate it – which is when you’ll hear a cat’s typical retching noises.

In healthy cats, the most common symptom of a hairball is a ‘cough-gag-retch’ sound – so-called, because it is 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). Other signs of hairballs in cats can include nibbling on grass, constipation or lethargy.

If your cat is coughing up a hairball every now and then, it’s usually nothing to worry about. It’s perfectly normal for them to demonstrate the ‘cough-gag-retch’ reflex several times in a single session, and the retching action shouldn’t generally bring up anything except the hairball itself.

If, however, your cat is gagging more than every few weeks, or retching repeatedly for more than 48 hours at a time, too much excess hair may be ending up in their gut. They might be over-grooming as a result of a skin condition or an allergy. If you notice your cat licking themselves more than usual, or any bald spots appearing on their body, it’s worth discussing allergy testing with your vet. And if your cat is bringing up bile as well as hair, bear in mind that it could be a symptom of pancreatitis or another disease that requires veterinary attention.

As a general rule, if your cat can’t seem to pass or cough up a hairball, and if their symptoms last for more than two to three days, book a vet check-up to make sure nothing is amiss.

In most cases, cats are able to bring up or pass hairballs on their own, sooner or later. In rare instances, however, hairballs can cause a blockage in a cat’s intestine, and require a prescribed medication (or, in severe cases, surgery) to shift. If you notice that your cat hasn’t been using their litter tray, seems lethargic, has been refusing to eat for a day or two, or is continually retching or vomiting, then again, it’s best to get them checked out by your vet.

If your cat seems vulnerable to blockages, your vet may recommend an anti-hairball laxative. Its thick, sticky consistency ‘de-fluffs’ your cat’s gut by gathering up all the hair and passing it out safely in their poo. This will also remove the tickly feeling that irritates their gut and causes the cough-gag-retch reflex.

Most older cats continue to experience hairballs in much the same way as they did when they were younger, but constipation can be more of an issue for ageing pets and – on rare occasions – may lead to complications. This is because the movement of food through a cat’s digestive tracts slows as they age. Cats who experience pain while defecating (such as those with arthritis) can also become constipated more often.

If you notice signs of constipation in your cat, again, it’s a good idea to book a check-up with your vet. If a cat is constipated and unable to pass whatever is in their digestive system, hairballs (and potential blockages) could then become a problem.

One problem with hairballs in cats is that they can sometimes be confused with – and therefore obscure – more 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, they may make a retching noise similar to the sound of bringing up a hairball. Asthmatic cats also tend to wheeze.

Don’t just assume that if your cat is coughing, retching or wheezing frequently, it must be due to a hairball. If you’re in any doubt about what’s causing their symptoms, or they appear to be having breathing difficulties, always see your vet for advice.

It’s impossible to stop your cat from swallowing some fur, but brushing their coat regularly with a soft brush can definitely help to reduce the amount they ingest. Aim for a once-a-day grooming session with longhaired breeds, or a weekly one for shorthaired cats.

If your cat is prone to coughing up hairballs, you could also consider an anti-hairball cat 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 their digestive system. Adding a hairball lubricant to your cat’s diet can also help ease this process.

Bear in mind, though, that coughing up hairballs is a completely natural behaviour in our cats, so you’re unlikely to banish the habit entirely. And in the majority of cases, it’s absolutely nothing to worry about!

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