Are Hairballs Harmful? How to Help Your Cat With This Hairy Problem

April 15, 2021
cat health

Last week, one of my cats, Harvey, had surgery to remove a hairball that had obstructed his small bowel. I know what you’re probably thinking! Aren’t hairballs normal for cats and, while unpleasant, harmless? Actually, no.

Hairballs (trichobezoars) have been found in big cats, cattle, a chicken, and in people. In all species, they reflect an underlying problem. (The chicken was picking at dog hair because no grass was available.) 

What are hairballs?

According to studies, cats spend about three and a half hours a day grooming. Their marvelous barbed tongues are very good at removing matts, loose hair, and other things that may get caught in their coats. 

When a cat’s digestive system is working as it should, they digest and pass hair in their feces. However, when it’s not working properly, cats will vomit hairballs.

Hairballs are those cigar-shaped, soggy wads of hair that cats leave in the most unwelcome of places. When a cat regurgitates or vomits food with a little bit of hair in liquid, that is NOT a hairball. Vomiting of any nature should be investigated.

What causes hairballs?

When hair wads up inside a cat, it means that there is either more hair being ingested than can be handled or that the hair isn’t moving through the digestive system normally. 

Things that can cause a cat to ingest more hair than their body can cope with include:

  • Increased grooming due to skin irritation, such as fleas or allergies
  • Increased licking of a painful area of the body
  • Anxiety (similar to how people might chew their fingernails when feeling stressed)
  • Grooming other cats or people. While this grooming is sometimes a sign of affection, it can also be a sign of stress
  • Diseases of the digestive tract that result in inflammation or ileus (the lack of normal gastrointestinal movement) or an obstruction  

Long-haired cats can be a bit more prone to hairballs than cats with short hair. Also, the occasional “system purge” might result in a hairball.

How can I prevent my cat from getting hairballs?

You can help prevent excessive hair ingestion by grooming your cat regularly: a metal comb works far better than a brush. After combing, wipe the coat using a damp washcloth or paper towel to remove the loosened hair before your cat does! Make sure you use flea prevention regularly. 

It isn’t unreasonable to try a hairball diet or hairball remedies, but more than a few a year should be discussed with your veterinarian. Chronic use of petroleum products found in hairball remedies (which work by lubricating the intestine to help the hair slide through) can interfere with the absorption of nutrients.

Giving your cat melted butter or margarine will not help with hairballs and can result in a nutritional imbalance – and too many calories. Over-the-counter products should only be used at the recommendation of your veterinarian.

Despite these precautions, my cat Harvey would still hack a hairball about once a week. 

What are the signs that my cat needs help?

Unlike dogs, cats are less likely to ‘tell us’ when they are feeling unwell or in pain, so it’s important to know the signs of a potential problem. 

This is how I knew Harvey needed urgent attention, and the signs you should watch for in your own cat:

  • Vomiting large amounts of liquid
  • Decreased appetite/no appetite
  • Depression
  • Pain 

After removing the offending hairy obstruction, biopsies were taken to try to identify the cause of Harvey’s hairballs. He has chronic inflammation of his stomach and intestine. Treating those should make hairballs a thing of the past. 

This article was written by feline specialist Dr. Margie Scherk DVM, DABVP.

Suggested reading: Cat Friendly Homes: Hairballs

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