The Hidden Dangers of Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs, although normal, can harm our furry companions. They can cause a blockage in your cat’s GI tract. The good news? You can do something about it!

Jan 21, 2024By Monika Dimitrovska
the hidden dangers of hairballs in cats

If you’re a cat owner, you’ve probably heard of hairballs by now. They’re a part of a cat’s life!

As you already know, these OCD animals groom themselves constantly, ingesting fur in the process. The problem? Most times, that hair passes through their digestive tract, but sometimes, it doesn’t, causing various issues.

In this article, we’ll discuss the dangers of hairballs in cats, so let’s jump right in!

What Causes Hairballs in Cats?

cat grooming
Image credit: beauty_of_nature from Pixabay

Hairballs, also known as trichobezoars in the medical world, don’t only cause problems in cats. Canines can also experience gastrointestinal obstruction caused by hair.

In fact, any animal grooming themselves or consuming the hair of others can develop a hairball. Still, they’re most common in cats, especially long-haired breeds like the lovely Norwegian forest cat.

Cats typically consume small amounts of hair as they clean themselves. Unfortunately, this hair can’t be digested as it contains keratin (a fibrous, structural protein). Instead, it passes through the intestines and leaves the body in the feces.

However, this hair can sometimes become tangled on itself or another item within the intestines or stomach. This is when problems occur. The tangled clump of hair can’t leave the body because it’s too big, resulting in a hairball.

In this case, the cat can vomit up the hairball. In the worst-case scenario, the hairball may get stuck in the GI tract, causing a painful obstruction. And since cats don’t really have 9 lives, this blockage can be fatal.

Upon researching this topic, we discovered that felines with underlying gastrointestinal disease experience hairballs more often. This is because their altered GI motility limits the passing of hair through the digestive tract.

Furthermore, if a cat has a skin disease, they can be more prone to hairballs because of the more robust grooming. Excessive grooming can also be a result of boredom, stress, behavioral issues, etc.

What Does a Cat Hairball Look Like?

cat licking paw
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Typically, a hairball resembles a clump of hair with a tube-like shape released through the esophagus. If it’s wet, it’s likely fresh, but it can dry up quickly if unnoticed. That’s why sometimes, cat owners confuse a hairball with cat poop; they think their cat missed the litter box.

Alternatively, a hairball can look like a loose tangle of hair mixed with mucus, food, or fluid, possibly tinged with bile. This makes it hard to determine if the feline is vomiting because of the hair or if the hair came up with everything else.

How do I Know if My Cat Has Hairballs?

cat in a cat tunnel
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Usually, the clear sign is finding a vomited hairball—a wet, tubular mass of compressed fur. It’s easily recognizable for most cat owners because it has a unique shape formed by the forces squeezing the hair as it travels up the esophagus.

However, identifying hairballs causing obstructions is trickier. If a hairball is blocking something, you might not see hair in your cat’s vomit. Instead, you should learn how to read your cat’s body language.

Watch out for signs like abdominal pain, vomiting, and a lack of bowel movements, as these could indicate a blockage. If your cat struggles to keep down food or water, seek veterinary care.

How are Hairballs Diagnosed?

cat vet monitoring
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Diagnosing hairballs in cats, especially if they’re causing vomiting, is usually straightforward. Your vet may check the skin, perform blood tests, and look into the digestive system for underlying issues.

If a hairball is blocking things, a more thorough examination is needed. The vet will check your cat’s overall health, feel the belly for any problems, and take X-rays to see if there’s an obstruction.

Depending on what they find, they might do more tests (ultrasound, etc.).

Treatment involves removing the hairball causing the blockage. Sometimes, endoscopes can get things done, but surgery is more common. This lets the vet check the whole digestive system, fix any issues, and remove hairballs if needed.

However, don’t worry, as quick surgery usually works well, preventing serious problems.

Your vet will discuss how your cat is likely to recover and give you instructions for care after surgery, like what to feed your cat and any medications needed. Most cats stay in the hospital for a few days before going home with specific care instructions.

How Can I Help My Cat With Hairballs?

woman brushing cat
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If your feline often has hairballs, it’s best to see a vet since it could be a sign of a health issue. For occasional hairballs, you can try these simple home remedies:

  • Over-the-Counter Hairball Medicine: Look for a gel that helps fur move through the digestive system.
  • Natural Remedies: Some high-fiber supplements can help pass hair naturally. Check with your vet first.
  • Hairball Treats: Tasty treats with fiber can be a good option for finicky cats.
  • Hairball Control Food: Switching to high-fiber cat food can make a difference.

Avoid giving your cat cooking oils, butter, lard, grease, or mineral oil, as they won’t help and can be harmful. Always check with your vet before trying home remedies.

How to Prevent Hairballs in Cats Naturally?

cat professional grooming services
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You can’t prevent hairballs in cats completely. However, you can reduce the potential risk of dealing with one in the following ways:

Regular Grooming

Comb or brush your feline daily to remove loose fur and reduce the chance of hairballs. Consider professional grooming every six months for long-haired cats.

Special Cat Food

Switch to cat food designed to reduce hairballs, often containing increased fiber, oil, minerals, and vitamins.

Add Fiber to Diet

Introduce small amounts of fiber like pumpkin, apples, carrots, or cat grass to aid digestion. Be cautious not to add too much, and consult your vet.

Hairball Products or Laxatives

Consider mild laxatives or hairball products to help hair pass through the digestive tract. Always follow product directions and consult your vet.

Monitor Grooming Behavior

Watch out for excessive grooming, which may indicate pain or feline anxiety. Consult your vet if needed.

Use Baby Wipes

After grooming, wipe your cat with fragrance-free, hypoallergenic baby wipes to remove loose fur.

Increase Water Intake

Ensure your cat gets enough exercise and stays hydrated, especially if they eat dry food. A water fountain or canned food can help.

Lubricate Digestive Tract

Incorporate oil into your cat’s diet, such as a teaspoon of olive oil once a week, or offer small amounts of canned tuna or sardines. Petroleum jelly on their paw can also help.

Closing Thoughts

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Image credit: Cong H from Unsplash

Taking care of your cat means understanding the risks of hairballs.

While the occasional hairball is normal, it can be a health concern. Fortunately, regular grooming, special diets, and natural remedies can help in most cases.

However, if your cat has ongoing issues, quick vet care is vital. So, closely observe their grooming habits and make sure they stay hydrated.

Monika Dimitrovska
By Monika Dimitrovska

Monika is a pet enthusiast and seasoned copywriter with a tech degree. She loves writing, but her heart belongs to her two mixed dogs, Buba and Bono, a mother-son duo. Bono’s siblings found loving homes, sparking Monika’s advocacy for neutering and deepening her curiosity about animal care.

But Monika’s pet family doesn’t end there. She also has two cockatiels and two rescue cats, proving her home is a haven for creatures big and small.