It’s not uncommon for a cat to vomit up a hairball every week or two. And while the momentary hacking, gagging, and retching it takes to make it happen doesn’t feel good to the cat, neither is it harmful — usually.
Hairballs happen because cats spend roughly half their waking hours self-grooming. The little hooks that make their tongues rough pull up fur as they clean, and that fur then makes its way into the stomach. The fur can’t be digested, so it normally gets voided when the cat relieves herself. Sometimes, though, too much hair collects to pass. That’s when it comes back up through the esophagus and gets projected out of the mouth.
The medical term for a hairball is trichobezoar. A mass of undigested hairs moistened with digestive enzymes, it is anywhere from one to five inches in length and shaped roughly like the esophageal tube through which it arrives at the oral cavity. Long-haired breeds like Persians and Maine coons are particularly likely to end up with hairballs for obvious reasons, as are cats who shed a lot or groom themselves compulsively. And older cats are more apt to form hairballs than younger ones. As cats mature, they become better groomers.
One way to help prevent hairballs is to groom your cat regularly. That way, hairs end up on the brush instead of in her stomach. Some cats really enjoy the tactile sensation and the extra attention.
You can also buy a food that’s labeled to be helpful with hairball control. There are no regulations for foods meant to minimize hairballs. Such labeling is about marketing rather than scientific testing and proof of compliance with any government standards. But in general, foods that state they help prevent hairballs are relatively high in fiber. The idea is to make whatever’s in the stomach push through to the intestines and then out of the body more easily so it doesn’t have to be vomited up. These foods might be worth a try even though they come with no guarantees.
When hairballs get risky
For most cats, most of the time, hairballs are harmless. But in rare cases, they can cause life-threatening intestinal blockages. Here are the signs that a hairball may be putting your cat in danger:
Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball.
-Lack of appetite.
If any of these signs don’t self-resolve within a day or so, get your cat to the veterinarian. They can signal many conditions in addition to hairballs, but whatever the problem, it needs tending.