The sounds of coughing and retching along with the discovery of regurgitated blobs of hair are familiar to cat owners. Hairballs are a common nuisance, but sometimes they can cause complications — even life-threatening ones — that require a trip to the local pet hospital. Here's what you need to know to keep your kitty safe and healthy.
What Are Hairballs?
Cats are fastidious groomers. They are continually licking their fur, and because their tongues are rough, they grab a lot of loose hair. This is especially true for long-haired cats. That hair typically travels through the digestive tract and is expelled with the feces. However, sometimes it gets stuck in the esophagus and the cat will cough it up, or it will accumulate in the stomach and the cat will vomit it up. That's when you'll find the sloppy results around your house. But sometimes the hair collects in the small intestine and rather than passing through, forms a blockage. When this happens, it's an emergency and requires the services of a veterinarian.
When Do Hairballs Become an Emergency?
When a hairball blocks the intestines, food cannot pass. Your kitty may become lethargic and refuse to eat. He or she may have frequent episodes of retching that produce no hair clumps. Within days, this can become life-threatening.
Your veterinarian can diagnose a blockage through examination and palpation, patient history, radiography, or ultrasound. If he or she suspects hairballs are the cause of a blockage, they may hospitalize your furry friend for observation. They also may treat with a product specially made to help pass hairballs. If the blockage continues, IV fluids may be required to fight dehydration. If all else fails, your vet may need to perform surgery to remove the hairball blockage.
How Can You Prevent Hairballs?
You can't stop cats from grooming their fur, although as they age, they may slow their grooming habits. Instead, you can give them a little grooming help. Daily brushing with a slicker brush can remove all the dead hair before it ends up in your cat's stomach. This might be a two-person task unless you've already been brushing your kitty daily, which is a good habit to start early.
Another preventative tactic is medical. There are products available that will help your kitty pass the hair so it doesn't accumulate in the gut. Your vet can recommend a good product. He or she may also recommend a dietary solution. Several pet food companies sell cat food specifically formulated to prevent hairballs.
Hairballs are natural products of cat behavior. They may be a nuisance, but if you're careful, they'll never be more than that. For more information, contact a veterinarian.