Hairballs in Cats: How to Manage Them Effectively

Anyone with a cat is familiar with hairballs and the problems associated with them. Because cats groom themselves by licking their fur, hairballs are inevitable. Although you can’t prevent or completely eliminate hairballs, it is possible to reduce their frequency and make the struggle with them less difficult for your cat.

All cats suffer from hairballs, however, the longer haired varieties, such as Persians and Angoras, suffer from it more often and with greater difficulty. Because cats clean themselves by licking the fur, the hairs become attached to the tongue, then are swallowed and accumulate in the feline’s stomach. Most of the time, these hairs go through the cat’s intestinal tract and are eliminated from the body with no problem. Hairballs are the remaining hairs and fur that does not get eliminated, but has formed into a clump in the stomach, and cannot pass through the bowels. They will be choked or coughed up through the throat and out of the body through the mouth. Hairballs generally resemble cigar-shaped masses, and sometimes even a firm stool with hairs sticking out of it.

Dangers From Hairballs

Although hairballs cannot be eliminated completely, it is very important to do what you can to help reduce their occurrence. Several more serious conditions can arise, if the frequency of hairballs increases, or the hairball episodes become severe. Some of the dangers include:

  • Impaction – where hairballs get lodged in the digestive tract, which generally occurs when a hairball was small enough to get into the intestines, but is moving slowly and food that has entered behind it cannot pass beyond it, causing a blockage in the intestinal flow.
  • Vomiting undigested food – which can result in malnutrition and dehydration.
  • Decreased appetite – eventually your cat’s desire to avoid retching and vomiting hairballs will diminish his desire to eat.
  • Trouble defecating – difficulty with bowel movements, which may translate into failure to use the litter box and irritability, as well as toxins accumulating in the body because waste is not being eliminated frequently enough.
  • Swollen abdomen – which causes discomfort from distention
  • Diarrhea
  • Dry retching – the strain of vomiting bringing up stomach bile and spit; causing pain and discomfort and muscle strain, while failing to expel the hairball orally.

If you think your cat is suffering from impaction or a more serious blockage, contact your veterinarian at once, as surgery may be required to clear the intestinal passageway. Your veterinarian will be able to clear blockages non-surgically as long as the condition has not progressed too far.

Controlling Hairballs

As always, it is easier to treat simple conditions and far better to prevent serious incidents than to to try and treat more severe conditions once they have progressed too far. Some of the ways you can manage hairballs are:

  1. Food – choose a high quality, wholesome food that breaks down easily in the cat’s digestive system. Do not use cheap, generic brand foods, as they do not provide ample nutrition to your cat, and decrease the quality function of their digestive system, which is one way the hairballs are eliminated. Some brands contain ingredients that help breakdown hairballs in the digestive tract.
  2. Hairball remedies – which come in a variety of forms such as treats, or supplements, which you can put some on the cat’s food, or pastes and gels, which you can feed orally. These should be used in moderation, as they contain mineral oil which helps with elimination, but also depletes Vitamin A.
  3. Grooming – frequently brushing your cat’s fur will greatly reduce the number of loose hairs that your cat could end up swallowing as it grooms. After brushing, take a clean cloth and wipe your cat’s fur in the direction it grows to remove any remaining loose hairs. Some cats are just habitual groomers, almost to the point of excess, so providing more toys and activities that distract him from this is helpful too.

Make sure you check with your veterinarian to see what other options may be available nutritionally to help reduce the size and frequency of the hairballs, and to make sure that you have chosen a good quality food and hairball remedy. Your veterinarian may also have some suggestions on how often to use the treats and hairball treatments so that you don’t compromise your cat’s nutritional needs.

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