Coughing Up Clumps: The Science Behind Cat Hairballs
Author: DVM cVMA Dana Hogg
May 4, 2023
Are you fur-miliar with that gagging sound cats make when they are about to hack up a hairball? I know I sure am. Fun fact – April 28th happens to be national hairball awareness day. How interesting right? Most cat owners have experienced cleaning up a hairball at least once or twice.
Maybe you only find the evidence of a hairball or maybe you witness the whole act. Hairballs, also called trichbezoars, as the name suggests, are often tubular-shaped undigested wet hair due to digestive fluids. When cats hack these up, they often extend their neck and retch a few times until it comes up. But why do they occur?
Cats tend to be excellent in the self-care act of grooming, they spend approximately 30-50% of their day grooming themselves. (1) With that habit, it is inevitable that some hair will be consumed. The rough projections on their tongue help facilitate the movement of indigestible hair into the stomach. Generally, this hair will then move through the gastrointestinal tract and pass through the feces, however, sometimes hair can accumulate in the stomach and form a hairball. Kittens and young cats are less likely to develop hairballs than older cats. As you would expect, longer hair cats are at higher risk for development. (2) Cats which overgroom due to stress or skin issues may also be more predisposed to developing hairballs.
In general, an occasional hairball in an otherwise healthy cat is not concerning. It is normal for a cat to experience a hairball every 1-2 weeks. (2) While hairballs tend to be regurgitated up and out of the stomach, on occasion, they can become too large to expel resulting in a partial or complete obstruction. Obstructions within the gastrointestinal tract are life-threatening. Some clinical signs associated with an obstruction may include inappetence, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, and lethargy.
Underlying GI Issues
A well-functioning digestive tract should be able to move hair through the GI tract appropriately. Underlying gastrointestinal issues can affect digestion, absorption, and motility of the GI tract. Cats experiencing frequent hairballs could indicate an underlying issue such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). As the name suggests, IBD is inflammation along the GI tract. The exact cause is unknown. Multiple factors can contribute to the development of IBD resulting in the migration of inflammatory cells to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. (3) The clinical signs that you may observe vary depending on which part of the gastrointestinal tract is affected. Some common clinical signs include vomiting or diarrhea, changes in appetite, and weight loss which occur for several weeks or months.
But what else could hacking and retching indicate? If your cat appears to have retching-like episodes but you never see the production of a hairball, there may be another issue completely unrelated to the gastrointestinal tract. Asthma is another disease that will often cause feline patients to retch, however, a hairball is never produced. Recording these episodes on your phone can be very beneficial in aiding your veterinarian in their clinical assessment. Regardless, any frequent hairball production or unproductive retching should be assessed by a veterinarian. Based on the pet’s history and their physical exam, they may recommend additional diagnostics such as bloodwork and imaging.
So how can we prevent these? Brush. Brush. Brush! Acclimating your cat to daily brushing and developing a consistent routine is one of the best strategies for the prevention of hairballs. If your pet absolutely will not cooperate, then consider taking them to a good groomer a few times a year, especially if your cat has long fur. If you are worried about the stress from a grooming appointment, your veterinarian can talk with you about ways to help make it the most positive and low-stress experience possible for your cat. There are also diets that are higher in fiber and supplements designed to help reduce the development of hairballs. When considering supplements and diet changes, discuss them with your veterinarian to ensure you are picking the best option for your individual pet.
- Are Hairballs a Symptom of a Health Problem in Cats? (2022, September). AKC Pet Insurance. https://www.akcpetinsurance.com/blog/hairballs-symptom-larger-problem-cats
- A Hairy Dilemma. (2018, May 21). Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/hairy-dilemma
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats | VCA Animal Hospitals. (n.d.). Vca. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/inflammatory-bowel-disease-in-cats
Dr. Dana Hogg graduated in 2015 from North Carolina State University. She grew up in Wilson, North Carolina. Growing up with several animals, Dr. Hogg was drawn to the field of veterinary medicine at a young age. She completed her undergraduate degree at NCSU in 2009 and her master's degree in 2011.
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