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Hairballs: what they are and how to prevent them

13 November 2020
As a cat owner you will be all too aware of a cat's tendency to leave you unwanted gifts. If it’s not still living, long dead, or plain unpleasant, it probably hasn’t been left by your cat! When it comes to gifts, nothing beats the regurgitated hairball for a show of affection! For all we love our animals, there are some things we will never get used to and, getting out of a warm bed and stepping straight onto a freshly deposited cold, slimy mass of mucus, is one of them!

So what exactly are hairballs?

Cats are a vain and fastidious species that will happily spend up to 50% of their waking day grooming. There are many reasons why they do this i.e. to maintain the coat, relax, cool down, protect against predators, bond with other cats, and they have evolved to perform this natural behaviour regularly. But for all the good it does, continual licking of the coat can cause problems. Every time a cat grooms itself, loose hairs inadvertently get ingested. Most hairs pass through the stomach and intestines with ease, but sometimes they accumulate in the system and form an obstructing mass.

The rough backwards-facing barbs found on the cat’s tongue contribute to the problem by gathering hair into the mouth. Generally speaking, most of this hair comes out in the stools without too much trouble, however if the gastro-intestinal tract isn’t functioning properly or too much hair is ingested, problems can arise. Typically, a large hairball is made up of 15-30% protein which the cat's stomach enzymes are not strong enough to dissolve.

To expel a hairball from the stomach, most cats will gag, hack or retch until the offending mass reappears. To help, cats may eat grass to make themselves vomit. Hairballs are most common in spring when a cat sheds its coat for summer and grooms itself excessively to loosen the hair. Although finding hairballs on the carpet is unpleasant, at least you know your cat is clearing the hair and not harbouring it in its stomach.

How can I prevent hairballs?

Unfortunately there are no guarantees that your cat won't ever develop a hairball, but there are a number of things you can do to reduce their quantity. 

  • Regular grooming is essential for a healthy coat that sheds little. By grooming your cat on a weekly basis you are helping to remove the loose hairs your cat would otherwise be ingesting. You are also stimulating the coat to produce its natural oils and promoting better blood flow. Additionally, grooming helps strengthen the bond between cat and owner and allows you to feel for changes (i.e. weight gain/loss) while your cat is stationary and relaxed. Longhaired cats are particularly prone to hairballs so daily grooming is required.
  • Lubricants can work wonders at helping a hairball to pass through the system. If a particularly large hairball accumulates in the gastrointestinal tract and prevents eating and causes pain and constipation, it is sometimes necessary for your cat to have surgery. However, don't panic - the surgical removal of hairballs is uncommon as most hair masses pass out eventually. Adding a lubricant to your cat's food can help with the digestive process and passing the hair out quicker. Nowadays most cat lubricants are flavoured for enhanced palatability so your cat should have no qualms enjoying it.
  •  Diet is also worth considering when it comes to preventing hairballs. There are many tailored foods on the market these days which help to break up hairballs so they can be eliminated more easily. Many also contain natural oil lubricants and blended vitamins to support the health of the coat, as a healthy coat is known to shed less. Dietary supplements can also be beneficial at preventing hairballs and promoting the all-round health of the gastrointestinal tract.
While hairballs are not an unusual occurrence, they should certainly not be a regular occurrence. If your cat is vomiting up hair every week, it might be necessary to start adding lubricant to its diet or grooming more often. On the off-chance this doesn't work and your cat appears bloated and/or constipated, take it along to the vet for a check-up.

If you are worried about hairballs, think about trying a diet that is specifically formulated for hairball prevention. Any loose hair on the carpet should be cleared up before your cat has chance to ingest it. By no means are hairballs a serious condition but very occasionally they can be. Either way, they are unpleasant and often troubling to look at. Therefore it is worth taking every possible measure to prevent them by reducing the amount of loose hair on your cat and in your home.