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Hairballs: Causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Sunday July 31st, 2011

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If you own a cat (or one owns you), you’ve almost certainly heard the hacking sounds and cleaned up the unpleasantness that accompany coughing up a hairball. While a common malady among felines, they can occasionally be serious. Here’s a primer.

Causes

Cats groom themselves with their rough tongues, in part to rid their coats of loose hairs — some of which get swallowed. Usually it just passes though their digestive tract, but hair may collect in their stomachs or intestines. Your cat then vomits up that mass of matted hair, known scientifically as a “trichobezoar,” to clear it from his system. They’re often tubular in shape, as the mass is compressed while passing through your cat’s esophagus.

Cats who shed a lot, groom often, or have long hair are at a heightened risk of developing hairballs. Even if your feline never developed them as a kitten, as cats grow up, they become more prone as they groom more carefully and often.

Symptoms and treatment

As noted above, you’ll occasionally hear your furry friend hacking or gagging, or even witness him vomiting up the offending hairball. Sometimes, you may find that your kitty has only thrown up food or mucus, but an unproduced hairball might be at the root of the problem.

If you notice these symptoms, you can try a hairball remedy. These lubricants and jellies, commonly available at pet supply stores, will help him pass the hairball or cough them up. Directions for the products differ; read the labels carefully.

A periodic hairball isn’t a big deal, but if it’s happening a few times a week, it might require more aggressive prevention tactics to get them under control. Hairballs can become lodged in his esophagus or intestinal tract, which can even be fatal.

Serious hacking for more than a day can be a sign that it’s developing into a serious complication. Be on the lookout for reduced appetite, lethargy, and constipation or diarrhea. If you notice these symptoms, see a veterinarian—though rare, some severe cases may require surgery.

Prevention

Since your cat won’t stop grooming or shedding, you won’t be able to prevent hairballs, but you can take measures to lessen their frequency or their severity.

Brush your cat frequently. Less loose hair to swallow means fewer hairballs. He might even grow to find this good bonding time with you. Occasional trips to the groomer (especially for long-haired cats) is another option.

Change his diet. Some varieties of cat food contain ingredients that focus on improving skin and coat health to help reduce shedding, and often add fiber to stimulate cleansing of the bowels.

Water. More water won’t cure hairballs, but it’s essential to keeping your cat’s digestive tract running in top shape, so make sure he’s getting enough.

Get him a toy. New toys can help distract him from excessive grooming—and get him more stimulation and exercise. Exercise aids his general health, which may help his system work a little smoother, too.

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