A Hairy Situation

Posted by Steve Dale on Oct 27th 2021

If you have a cat, you know the sound. You can hear it a mile away or at least a room away – it’s the unmistakable sound of a cat coughing up a hairball.

Cats are fastidious groomers, and hairballs are a result – at least for some cats.

Here’s what happens. When your cat grooms themselves, tiny hook-like structures on their tongue (which you can feel when your cat ever “kisses” you) catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. Most of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problem for many cats. But if some hair stays in the stomach, it forms into a little ball and the cat eventually vomits it up. Yuck. Passing through the esophagus the ball narrows – but now that’s more than you likely want to know.

Hairballs occur in any breed or mix but more often happen among long-haired cats.

Periodic random hairballs every couple of weeks or even weekly aren’t a particular problem except for the humans assigned to clean it up. However, when hairball episodes occur more often than that for your cat, contact your veterinarian; less can be a problem because sometimes hairballs are difficult to cough up, and there are products which may help your cat.

If the cat is retching and making those sounds that come before the hairball typically comes up, the hairball may be pretty large and/or stuck in place. If this is the case, contact your veterinarian immediately for an assessment and perhaps a recommendation to try a laxative type product (never give a cat a human laxative without veterinary input). Some cats do have frequent issues getting hairballs up and out of their systems.

Sometimes cat parents hear repeated coughing and assume the issue is hairball related when it’s not. Watch for these signs:

  • Continuous hacking or retching without producing a hairball
  • Changes in digestion, such as diarrhea or constipation or lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • A swollen or hard belly

Any of the above means you need to contact your veterinarian. These signs could mean there’s another issue all together such as heart disease, heartworm disease or related heartworm associated respiratory disease or feline asthma, for example. Not only should you see a veterinarian, but also video a coughing episode so your veterinarian has a really good idea about what’s happening.

Ask your veterinarian about additional sources of fiber, which could help improve intestinal movement such as hairball-control cat foods and chews, canned pumpkin, or small bits of fruits and veggies such as apples, carrots, or sweet potatoes. Maybe even sprinkling similar human products with psyllium or little pumpkin powder on to food. And of course, encouraging hydration is important.

The best way to lessen hairball episodes is simply brushing. The more frequent cat parents brush generally the more effective the hairball control.