It can be unnerving and downright unpleasant when you see your cat produce a hairball for the first time, but rest assured hairballs are harmless - disgusting - but largely harmless. Hairballs in cats are a regular product of long-haired cats like Persians and Maine Coons but they are also an inevitable occurrence in short haired cats. All hail the Sphynx!
Hairballs are the result of your cat's natural grooming routine. It’s hard to believe that such a hygienic practice can produce such an unsightly byproduct, but think of it like clipping your toenails.
While the majority of hair your cat swallows during its grooming regime easily passes through the digestive tract, some stray hairs accumulate in the stomach and form a wad. This wad can lead to discomfort which prompts them to vomit and regurgitate the hairball.
Cats usually crouch, extend their necks and retch and gag - that unpleasant noise associated with hairballs - until they expel the offending hairball in vomit.
While hairballs in cats are purrfectly normal, frequent vomiting (with or without hairballs) is NOT.
Contact your vet as soon as possible if you notice ongoing issues such as:
- retching or hacking without the production of a hairball
- a lack of appetite
- a change in your cat’s energy levels
- constipation or diarrhea
These may indicate a hairball is causing an intestinal blockage.
While there is no failsafe way to prevent your cat from getting hairballs, there are a number of things you can do to reduce their frequency.
- Grooming - Brushing your cat once a day will remove loose hairs and minimise the amount of hair your cat is likely to swallow, reducing the size of the hairball. Plus, regular grooming will keep your cat’s coat free of tangles and mats.
- Baby wipes - if you’re particularly thorough, try wiping your cat down with a hypoallergenic baby wipe after their daily brush to remove further stray hairs.
- Food - there are a number of hairball reducing cat foods on the market. These are usually high in fibre which can help keep the gastrointestinal tract clear and keep the coat healthy.
- Oil - research suggests that adding one teaspoon of olive oil to your cat's food once a week will help lubricate the cat's digestive system, which will allow the hairballs to glide on through like it was a theme park ride.
- Laxatives and products - laxative and other hairball products help hairballs pass through the digestive tract. You should talk to a vet before giving your cat any medication.
- Training - if your cat is a compulsive groomer you may need to try and break the habit. Try to distract them with an equally enjoyable activity by playing with them, introducing a new toy or even by brushing them yourself.
Some research suggests that a grain-free diet is more beneficial to cats that vomit regularly. The theory comes down to nature: cats are natural carnivores and their “natural” diet is high-protein, low-carbohydrate prey. Grain-based foods tend to be higher in carbs, leading to changes in the bacteria of your cat’s intestinal tract and contributing to the inability to be able to pass hair normally.
Hairballs are just one potential risk to your cat’s health, find out about the risks of the great outdoors here.