National Hairball Awareness Day is April 27, and while the event may draw chuckles from some, cat owners know that hairballs are no laughing matter. In fact, a mass of undigested hair in a cat’s intestinal tract can cause serious health problems, which is why awareness and efforts to control hairballs are so important.

So, what exactly is a hairball?

Hairballs are long, cylindrical clumps that many cats regurgitate. They’re the result of a cat’s regular grooming. They can also be the result of excessive grooming.

As a cat grooms itself with its tongue, hair travels down the throat and into the stomach. A cat cannot digest the insoluble protein within the hair—keratin. Most of the hair passes through the cat’s digestive tract and ends up in the litter box, but some of the hair can remain in the stomach. When the hair accumulates, it becomes a hairball, and the cat will eventually regurgitate it with a mixture of gastric fluids.

What happens if it gets too big?

It can be normal for a cat to regurgitate a hairball a few times per year. If a hairball gets too big, it won’t pass through the esophagus to the stomach and then into the intestinal tract. This is rare, but when a blockage like this happens, it can cause serious health problems. Additionally, while hairballs can be a normal occurrence for cats, frequent hairballs can be indicative of underlying problems within the digestive tract itself and may warrant further investigation by your veterinarian.

When should I see a veterinarian?

Symptoms that could suggest a problem with hairballs include:

  • Changes in a cat’s energy level and a disinterest in food
  • Repeated and unproductive retching
  • Vomiting, drooling, or other signs of nausea
  • Frequent regurgitation of hairballs (more than once every 2-3 months)
  • Weight loss

Sometimes, pet owners think their cat is trying to bring up a hairball, but really the cat is having an asthma attack. Or, the cat regurgitates a hairball in the process of having an asthma attack, and that leads to a pet owner unintentionally ignoring a bigger problem. Keep in mind, coughing, wheezing, and vomiting are some of the symptoms of asthma and require veterinary care.

How can I prevent hairballs from becoming a problem?

Regular brushing reduces the amount of hair your cat will consume during their grooming regimens. This is especially important if you have a long-haired cat, but even short-haired cats will benefit from brushing, and many cats enjoy this activity. There are also over-the-counter supplements that you can purchase to help facilitate the passage of hairballs if they are a problem for your kitty, but please consult a veterinarian if you have concerns.

 

Sources include:

https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/danger-hairballs