Regardless of a cat’s breed, size, shape or age, it’s a fairly common occurrence: The cat — apparently in good health — is peacefully wandering around the house. Suddenly, she stops, crouches, extends her neck, and retches, hacks and gags. Then, she spits up a slimy, dark-colored and thoroughly unpleasant looking clump of something or other that may resemble, if anything, a chunk of fecal matter. With that accomplished, the cat regains her composure and resumes her normal activities, none the worse for wear.
What’s in a Cat’s Hairball?
What the cat has disgorged is most likely a trichobezoar — a damp wad of organic material that is commonly referred to as a hairball. Despite that term, however, expelled hairballs are rarely globular; rather, they are most often slender and cylindrical. According to Elizabeth Rozanski, DVM, associate professor of emergency and critical care in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts, “These obstructions are made up mostly of hair that a cat has swallowed while grooming, mixed with saliva, digestive juices, and leftover food that is in its stomach.”
A spit-up hairball, she says, tends to be similar in appearance to, say, a cigar butt or small sausage. Its elongated shape is imparted by the narrow tube (esophagus) through which a hairball passes upward on its journey from an affected cat’s stomach to its mouth and then to the outside world.
Hairballs typically carry a mildly but not strikingly foul odor; they vary in size, usually an inch or so long, but they can be as much as five inches in length and an inch thick; and they are likely to be about the same color as the cat’s haircoat.
Hairballs are simply a byproduct of grooming, says Dr. Rozanski. “All cats groom themselves,” she points out, “and, in the process, they are bound to ingest hair. Most of the hair will just pass through the intestines, so it won’t clump up in the stomach. But some cats are excessive groomers, and some are extremely fluffy. So these cats can swallow so much hair that it gets matted in the stomach.”
Kittens and young cats are less apt to develop hairballs than older cats who, as well-experienced groomers, are likely to spend a good portion of their waking hours busily licking their coats. Some cats are, by nature, more fastidious than others in their grooming habits, and long-haired breeds — such as Persians and Maine Coons — are at significantly greater risk for developing these obstructions than are short-haired breeds. And the development of hairballs is more frequent in seasons of the year when cats shed their coats. “Most cats will periodically vomit a hairball,” says Dr. Rozanski, “and they’ll have no further problems. The same goes for cats that pass a lot of hair in their stools.”
It’s not unusual for some cats to throw up a hairball once every few weeks or so, she says, and that need not be a cause for concern. But if the cat expels a hairball once a week or more, she advises, especially if it is uncharacteristically lethargic and refuses to eat for more than a day, veterinary consultation is certainly in order, especially if the animal has repeated episodes of unproductive retching. It’s possible that a hairball, instead of being regurgitated, has passed from the cat’s stomach into its intestines, and is creating a potentially life-threatening blockage somewhere within the digestive tract that will have to be surgically removed.
Hacking Could Be a Sign of Respiratory Distress
However, it’s also possible that the frequent hacking has nothing at all to do with hairballs. It may instead be a sign that the animal is suffering from a serious respiratory problem, such as feline asthma, which may require different treatment. “In the vast majority of cases that we see,” says Dr. Rozanski, “the cat will have no problem with the hairballs. But there are cases in which the owner believes that the cat has hairballs when it turns out that they have lung disease.”
Diagnosis of an apparent intestinal blockage will most frequently be based on a thorough physical examination, bloodwork and a history of the animal’s pattern of hairball regurgitation. And an abdominal X-ray or ultrasound will be needed to definitively identify any obstruction. If only a partial blockage is discovered, fluid rehydration may be adequate to help the hairball to pass. But if a complete blockage is detected, surgery may be the only way to remove it.
Try to Prevent Hairballs
To prevent the development of hairballs and their complications, Dr. Rozanski advises: “The first line of defense is daily brushing and combing of the cat’s coat. This will reduce the amount of hair that’s available to be ingested.
You can also try feeding the cat a fingerful of a mild, oily substance called Laxatone once a day. This substance coats the swallowed hair and makes it slide more easily through the intestines. Also, there are diets designed specifically for the prevention of hairball development that can be very useful.”
Trying to discourage your cat from excessive grooming, she believes, is bound to be a fruitless endeavor. “All cats will groom themselves,” says Dr. Rozanski. “Some cats may just itch a lot, some do it because they have too much hair, and others do it because they’re nervous.”