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When To Worry About Cat Hairballs

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Hairballs are the butt of many a cat joke, even though the telltale hack-hack-hacking may seem commonplace to most feline owners. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so it’s this habit that causes hairballs -- swallowed loose fur that is not completely digested. The problem usually warrants no cause for alarm, but in some cases, hairballs become too big for a cat’s digestive tract and cause blockage that can be life-threatening. It’s important for any cat owner to know why hairballs form, why they’re so common and when they can be dangerous.

Harmful Hairballs

“Most cats will either vomit the hair or pass it in their stool,” explains Tami Groger, DVM, associate veterinarian at Bay Hill Cat Hospital in Orlando, Fla. The feline digestive system is designed to handle hairballs (called trichobezoars by doctors) but only up to a certain size. “We had a long-haired kitty who stopped eating for three days and just did not look comfortable,” recalls Bernadine Cruz, DVM, of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California. “Everything seemed normal, but when I [felt] her abdomen, there was something there under the rib cage. We took an X-ray and saw this big thing. We did surgery to remove one huge hairball -- at a cost of $2000.”

The kitty recovered fully, but the owner may still be recovering from that bill.

Another problem caused by hairballs is that sometimes their symptoms appear similar to respiratory problems, such as asthma, which also require a veterinarian’s attention. Keeping hairballs to a minimum will therefore help your veterinarian diagnose asthma more quickly, should your cat develop it.

All cats get hairballs, says Dr. Groger, but “they are more prevalent in the long-haired breeds -- Persians, Himalayans, Maine Coons and domestic long hairs.” She adds, however, that she has “seen problems with short-haired cats, as well.”

Hazardous Hairball Warning Signs

Three key symptoms can distinguish a not-so-worrisome hairball from one that may require immediate medical attention. These are:

  1. Continued retching that does not culminate with the expulsion of a hairball
  2. Frequent diarrhea
  3. Loss of appetite following repeated hairball episodes

All three of these symptoms could mean that your cat’s throat, stomach or intestines are blocked by a hairball obstruction. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, schedule a visit to your veterinarian’s office as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Hairballs

The best defense against hairballs, dangerous or not, is to keep your cat from getting them in the first place or to make sure they can be digested. Here are some tips recommended by veterinarians.

  • Brush your kitty “You really need to get down to the skin to loosen some of the fur,” says Dr. Cruz, who recommends using a soft rubbery brush for the task. Follow up with gentle combing using a fine-tooth comb. Older cats especially need this care, she says, as their digestive systems slow down with age and they’re less able to get rid of hairballs.
  • Feed your cat a specially formulated hairball care food Look for foods with beet pulp, carbohydrate blends and a fruit and vegetable extract known as FOS, which promotes healthy stomach bacteria. This combination of ingredients not only helps reduce fur balls, but it also enhances your cat's ability to absorb nutrients, provides bulk to move food through the intestines, promotes colon health and reduces waste and litter box odors.
  • For repeat hackers, increase their fiber intake Increasing fiber in your cat’s diet can help. The fiber will help hold onto hair and aid it in passing through the digestive track. Dr. Cruz suggests adding bits of asparagus, small amounts of canned pumpkin or oat grass to your cat’s hairball care commercial diet.
  • Offer a little oil You might also add a very small amount -- around half a teaspoon -- of petroleum jelly, olive oil or butter to your cat’s food. This too will help push through fur in the digestive system.
  • Purchase a commercial hairball remedy Commercial hairball remedies often contain similar fiber and oil ingredients combined with flavor enhancers to tempt your cat. Look for them at your local pet store. Just be sure to follow the enclosed listed directions carefully.
  • Keep a clean house Don’t allow your kitty access to pieces of string or thread around the house. If ingested, these can get wrapped up with swallowed fur and cause an obstruction.

Hairballs are an unpleasant side effect of your kitty’s natural inclination to stay clean and beautiful. Our job as cat owners is to allow that self-grooming but take responsible steps to make sure it doesn’t result in a dangerous, albeit hairy, health hazard.

Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.


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