Believe it or not, April 25 is Hairball Awareness Day, one of the pet-health awareness events recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
If you have a pet cat, you’re probably plenty aware of hairballs: We find them on the carpet and accidentally step on them when we wake up, an unpleasant experience that triggers memory of hearing hacking in the middle of the night. Ugh.
The medical term for hairball is “trichobezoar.” These masses accumulate in the digestive systems of animals that groom themselves, including cats, rabbits, cattle, even llamas. And hairballs are often no laughing matter for some species, sometimes requiring surgical removal because they may cause cause obstructions and dangerous medical conditions.
In cats, hairballs are a natural consequence of good grooming and typically are expelled. The sound a cat makes when evacuating a hairball is scary, a cross between a cough and a gag; the cat’s facial expressions are equally startling.
Why does this happen?
The projections on a cat’s tongue, which cause it to feel rough, are designed to clean off dead hairs in order to keep a cat’s coat smooth and sleek, the mark of a feline predator. As pet cats groom, hair moves to the gut, and in most cases on to the litter box.
Sometimes, however, hair hangs up in the stomach or upper intestine and collects fluids and bile. At this point, the trichobezoar becomes a round or tubular mass and must be expelled by vomiting.
Cats that are fastidious, long-haired and older are more prone to forming and ejecting hairballs. You can expect hairballs to appear once or twice per week.
If a pet cat expels hairballs more often than that – or if it has difficulty propelling hairballs – the animal should be seen by a veterinarian.
Prolonged gagging or vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea or constipation should also be of concern as underlying issues or hairball obstruction may be causing problems in your cat.
Here are some ways to help your cat with hairballs:
- Groom your cat to aid with shedding. Many cats enjoy daily brushing. Pick a soft, bristled brush or a cat grooming mitt.
- Consider a petroleum-based cat hairball treat. There are several available. These may be used once or twice weekly to help move hair through the digestive system.
- Keep your cat entertained to avoid the excessive grooming that might result from boredom. The Indoor Pet Initiative offers excellent tips to help keep your cat active at home.
Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie is a veterinarian and clinical coordinator for the Community Practice service at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Community Practice provides general care, wellness services, and treatment of minor injuries and illnesses for pets.