Cats are usually avid groomers and cleaners, ensuring their fur is free of dirt, tangles and is kept shiny.
But the downside of this is that they can ingest their loose hairs while removing them. In the best-case scenario, these will just pass through the digestive system naturally.
If there are issues, however, hairs can start to build up and form into hairballs. Most of the time, they will be able to cough these up, but the inability to do so could put their intestinal health at risk.
For this reason, you may wish to take preventative measures and help keep their digestive system lubricated and in good form with the help of furball medicine, such as foods, pastes or treats. If there are signs that your cat has a furball, you will also need to take action.
What is a cat hairball?
Furballs or hairballs are bundles of pet hair that form in a cat’s digestive tract after grooming. The scientific term is trichobezoars, and they are actually elongated in shape as opposed to spherical due to the voyage they take in the digestive system.
A felines tongue contains little ‘hooks’ which help them when grooming and captures loose hairs. When they swallow these, they travel to the stomach. Most of the time, they will be excreted in stools or coughed up.
Signs and symptoms of a hairball
Coughing or gagging
Is your cat constantly wretching but there is nothing there in the end? They are trying to regurgitate the hair but it isn’t working, so get advice from the vet and try using some hairball remedy
If they can’t eat properly, they may become weak and sick, uninterested in ordinary activity
Change in behaviour
This could be from pain or discomfort, or because they haven’t been able to eat properly
This is linked to the reduction in eating too. The hair may be causing an obstruction which food only adds to, so you should use a non-food based remedy or take them to the vet
Change in bowel movements
Easier to spot in litter tray using cats, but a reduction or change in toilet habits means they’re having difficulty dealing with waste. There may be diarrhoea or constipation, and this could well cause a swollen stomach
How to prevent hairballs in cats
- Regularly groom your cat with a brush or grooming mitt/glove. This will get rid of any loose hairs and mean your cat is less likely to swallow them when grooming
- Provide hairball digestive supplements or aids regularly. This can be anything from regular food and treats specially designed for furball prevention to cat grass or pastes
- Keep them hydrated. Just like with humans, a lubricated throat and smooth-running digestive system can work wonders
- Give them a good diet. They aren’t created to deal with carbohydrate-rich foods. A high-protein, low-carbohydrate, grain-free diet is best as poor nutrition can be the first step to developing digestive issues
- Schedule regular grooming visits. From a haircut for long fur to a bit of a wash and condition for cats who will allow it, you can try and keep their fur as close to the shiny, tangle-free end result they like without them having to do too much themselves
Surgery for furballs
Occasionally, a cat may need surgery to remove a furball. The earlier you spot the signs, deal with them and contact the vet if there is no change in symptoms will improve how successful this can be.
They will always carry out a physical examination or x-ray to confirm the furball first, and also check for any other issues or health problems which could instead be causing the symptoms. Wretching can be a sign of feline asthma, virus or allergy for example.
After the surgery, you will have to adopt a preventative hairball process using foods and supplements as part of their diet. The vet will give some recommendations.
Is my cat at high risk of hairballs?
All cats are! They’re completely natural. But there is truth in saying some breeds and cats are more likely to have trouble dealing with them.
Obviously, a hair-free cat won’t have any issues, but those with long hair which regularly knots or sheds can have more trouble. Some cats also groom more than others which places them at a higher risk.
Older cats are often better groomers because they are more skilled in the art. This however means they can have more furballs, so as your kitty gets older you may wish to help them out a bit more using our tips above.
They can also naturally suffer from digestive issues such as diarrhoea or constipation, which could affect their ability to naturally deal with fur as food passes slower through their tract.