Most cat owners have been there—you wake up at 3:00 AM to the dreaded sound of your cat retching. You know that you have to quickly get them onto a surface for them to yack onto, primarily because your cat is likely on your bed, a piece of upholstered furniture, or a freshly steam-cleaned carpet.
Once you get your cat to a safe surface, they throw up a big clump of hair. Is this normal, though? Should you call the vet if your cat is throwing up hairballs? Here’s everything you need to know about hairballs and how to prevent them:
Are Hairballs Normal for Cats?
Hairballs are normal for the majority of cats when they happen on an occasional basis. Some vets say that a hairball every week or two can be normal for some cats. Long-haired breeds are more prone to hairballs than short-haired breeds, but many cats are more likely to develop hairballs during season changes when they are shedding. If your cat is throwing up hairballs multiple times per week, then this might be cause for concern.
Cats consume a lot of hair through their grooming habit of licking themselves and other cats. In many instances, this hair will pass through your cat’s digestive tract along with the food and water they consume. Sometimes, though, this hair begins to collect in the stomach. A hairball, also known as a trichobezoar, is a clump of undigested hair that collects in your cat’s stomach, only to get thrown back up.
What Are Hairballs?
The primary component of your cat’s hair, keratin, is not a digestible material. This means that even hair that makes it out of your cat’s stomach still will not be digested. When things are running smoothly, this hair will come out in your cat’s poop.
In the case of hairballs, the hair collects in the stomach, and the more hair that collects, the larger the hairball will become, making it easier for it to collect even more hair. This ball of hair can’t be digested by your cat’s stomach, though. This means that any ball of hair that becomes too large to exit the stomach via digestion will be expelled the way it came in, causing your cat to throw it up.
Are Hairballs Dangerous for Cats?
In most cases, hairballs are not dangerous. However, there are instances in which they can become extremely dangerous.
If a hairball in your cat’s stomach becomes too large to leave the stomach via digestion or vomiting, then it will continue to grow, causing discomfort for your cat. Eventually, this will lead to your cat losing the ability to properly digest food. In this case, the hairball must be surgically removed. Some vets may be able to remove large hairballs via your cat’s throat through an endoscope. When this is not possible, surgery on the stomach is required.
On rare occasions, a hairball may be small enough to exit the stomach properly, but then become lodged in the intestines. This causes an intestinal obstruction, which is a medical emergency. An intestinal obstruction blocks your cat’s ability to digest anything, and in severe cases, it can lead to the death of intestinal tissue or an intussusception. Intussusception involves your cat’s intestines “telescoping” through themselves.
Intestinal obstructions are rarely resolved on their own without surgical intervention, and intussusceptions are never resolved without surgery.
How Are Hairballs Treated?
If your cat is frequently throwing up hairballs or has begun vomiting as well as passing hairballs, then you should take them to the vet. This can indicate a multitude of conditions, from poor digestive ability to tumors. It’s necessary for your vet to rule out serious medical problems before you begin doing anything for the hairballs at home.
Hairballs are usually treated with laxatives that are made specifically for cats. These are usually in a flavored paste to make them easy to administer. They are often available over the counter and through a vet. However, you should always discuss your concerns about your cat’s hairballs with your vet before you begin administering laxatives. If there is an obstruction, a laxative could do more harm than good.
How Are Hairballs Prevented?
The same laxatives that can treat hairballs can also help prevent them. Laxatone and similar products are often used for this purpose. Never give your cat human laxatives without discussing it with your vet first. Some human medications are toxic to cats.
There are a variety of products on the market that are formulated to help prevent hairballs. There are hairball-preventing treats that your cat may enjoy eating. Probiotics and prebiotics, which can be given as a supplement or may be built right into your cat’s food, can help the health of your cat’s digestive tract. Hairball-reducing cat food often has probiotics and laxatives in the food to allow you to avoid having to give multiple products.
You can also help prevent or reduce your cat’s risk of hairballs by providing routine brushing. Keeping your cat brushed, especially during shedding seasons, can greatly reduce the amount of fur your cat accidentally consumes.
While it’s generally not recommended to bathe or shave cats, some cats may require one or both of these things for hygiene and health reasons. If you’re concerned about hairballs, talk to your vet about if either of these options would be appropriate for your cat.
Hairballs are usually not something to worry about, but if your cat begins throwing up hairballs multiple times per week, then it may be time to intervene. In rare cases, hairballs can be deadly for your cat, but more often than not will simply cause stomach discomfort.
Make sure to talk to your cat’s vet before beginning medications or supplements to prevent hairballs. They will be able to help you determine which products may be best for your cat.
Featured Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock