Why Your Cat Has Hairballs, and How To Treat Them

Published: March 27, 2024
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Nobody likes hairballs. They are uncomfortable for your cat to bring up and unpleasant for you to clean up. You may think that hairballs are an inevitable downside to sharing your home with a kitty, but that is not necessarily true. There are treatments you can try to prevent your pet from getting hairballs, or at least help your cat to pass them more easily.

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Unlike dogs, which have to have periodic baths, cats are self-groomers. They keep themselves clean by licking their fur and paws. Your cat's tongue is covered with papillae, tiny projections that slant backward toward her throat. When your kitty licks herself, the papillae work like the teeth of a comb to pull loose hair and debris to the back of her mouth and down her throat.

Cat hair is made of a substance called keratin. It is resistant to the acid in a cat's stomach that breaks down food. This makes cat hair undigestible. A cat's body is designed to move the undigested hair through the gastrointestinal tract to pass with the cat's feces into the litter box. However, this system doesn't always work efficiently. If a cat cannot pass the hair in his stomach out with his poop, he may have to vomit it back up as a hairball.

The scientific name for a hairball is a trichobezoar. "Tricho" means "hair," and a bezoar is a mass that forms in the stomach. All types of cats can get hairballs. Long-haired cats are more susceptible because they swallow a greater volume of fur. Older cats are more likely to have hairballs than younger cats.

Hairballs themselves are usually harmless. A healthy cat may hack up a hairball an average of once every month. However, an underlying health issue may cause your cat to have hairballs more often. Food allergies, diseases of the GI tract, foreign bodies, and skin diseases that cause your cat to shed more can all cause your cat to have frequent hairballs, an issue you should bring up with your veterinarian.

When Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Your cat can have hairballs at any time of the year. However, you may notice that your kitty has more hairballs during the spring and summer months. When the weather turns colder, cats typically start growing a thicker, heavier coat of fur to keep them warm during the winter. This still happens even if your pet spends all her time indoors.

As the weather turns warmer, your cat starts to shed his winter coat in favor of a lighter, cooler, summer coat. When your kitty is shedding more, he is probably swallowing more hair than usual, increasing the likelihood of a trichobezoar forming in his stomach and being unable to pass it through the intestinal tract.

What Can You Feed Your Cat To Prevent Hairballs?

Essentially, cats get hairballs because they are constipated. Fiber works the same way for cats to keep their bowel movements regular and prevent constipation as it works for humans. Therefore, it may help to feed your pet a cat food that is high in fiber.

Cat food formulated for indoor pets tends to have a high fiber content. When your cat spends all her time indoors and doesn't find her own food, she is less likely to get all the fiber she needs. You can choose to give her a food that supplies what she is no longer able to get on her own.

While there are high-fiber dry cat foods, you may also want to consider feeding your feline a wet cat food that is also high in fiber. The water content in wet cat food can help to lubricate the gastrointestinal tract and make it easier to pass undigested hair.

What Else Can You Do To Prevent Hairballs?

Some kinds of supplements also help prevent hairballs, or at least help your cat to pass them more easily. Most hairball control supplements fall into one of three categories:

      Fiber treats


      Gel-based laxatives

Fiber treats, such as these hairball control treats from Pet Honesty, are a good way to make sure that your cat gets enough fiber. This is important if, for some reason, your pet can't or won't eat a high-fiber cat food. The fiber in these cat treats comes from psyllium husk, a main ingredient in several supplements for humans.

Cats, like others mammals, have beneficial bacteria in their GI tracts that help to digest their food. If something happens to disrupt the balance of the microbiome in the gut, it can affect digestion. Probiotic supplements for cats help to replenish good bacteria in your pet's digestive tract. Ideally, this results in better digestion and fewer hairballs.

When given regularly, about 2-3 times a week, gel laxatives coat hairballs and lubricate them. This helps them move more efficiently through the GI tract, allowing your cat to pass them more easily. A main ingredient in some gel laxatives is white petrolatum, the same ingredient in petroleum jelly. Other gel laxatives are made from more natural, eco-friendly ingredients, such as cod liver oil. Gel laxatives usually have flavorings that make them more appealing to cats.

When Should You Talk To Your Vet About Hairballs?

If your cat has frequent hairballs, or exhibits other symptoms, such as lethargy or loss of appetite, you should take him to the vet for an evaluation. Sometimes hairballs can form blockages in the intestines, a condition that may require surgery to treat.

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