Why Most of the Time Its OK Not to Worry

Hairballs are mats of hair that collect somewhere in the gastrointestinal track, from the back of the throat to the anus, says James Richards, DVM, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center. Depending on location, they are either passed in the stool or brought forward by vomiting. Its a normal occurrence for cats, even big cats like tigers and jaguars. The jaguars at Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, for example, receive a prophylactic hairball remedy once or twice a month.

Technically called trichobezoars, these wads of fur result from hair swallowed during the cats self-grooming routine. Sharp, inward-directed spikes on the cats tongue grab the fur; once on the tongue, swallowing is the usual route for it to take. Its perfectly normal for cats to ingest fur, says Richards.

Generally, it passes through with no problem. Hairballs usually are of more concern to us than they are to the cat, he adds. Anyone who has stepped on one with bare feet in the middle of the night can attest to that. Wed soon have a whole new carpet if we didnt clean these things up! joked one feline lover. I get so tired of peeling dried hairballs off my bed, said another. Cats with long hair swallow more hair, but shorthaired cats swallow it, too. Where theres a cat, there are hairballs.

Is my cat sick?
The short answer? Usually no. Hairballs are normal, and in virtually every case, theyre no big deal, says Richards. That said, he warns: One of the biggest dangers of hairballs is not the hairball itself but the possibility there is a more serious condition that people blame on hairballs. With a cat that coughs or vomits a lot, it may be an absolute error to assume its caused by hairballs.

Although uncommon, there could be a more serious problem. Guardians who see some hair in the vomitus of a cat may blame the hair, when in fact the hair was an innocent bystander, adds Richards. If a cat vomits regularly, its wise to consult a veterinarian.

In addition, sometimes passage of hair through the large intestine irritates the tissues and may cause small amounts of blood or mucous in the stool. If this occurs regularly, the veterinarian should see your kitty.

Hairball prevention
Frequent brushing or combing is the most helpful; the more you remove, the less can be licked off. A rubber brush is effective for shorthaired cats; brushes and metal combs or plastic ones with rotating teeth are good for those with long hair. A short-toothed plastic rake, often used for small dogs, is excellent for removing loose fur from longhaired cats.

Increased dietary fiber may help move hair through the gastrointestinal tract. Some cats love canned pumpkin (plain, no spices) – one or two teaspoons daily mixed in canned food may help keep things moving. Powdered psyllium mixed with food is another option. Other preventive measures include using commercially prepared mild laxative pastes and commercial foods with ingredients aimed at promoting the passage of hair through the gastrointestinal tract.

Laxative pastes should not be used in excess because they may interfere with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, and as for the anti-hairball foods, realize that, to my knowledge, independent studies to support the claims have not been performed, says Richards. However, some guardians report that these foods have helped to reduce hairballs in their cats.

Another very good option for longhaired cats that are not being competitively shown is to have the kitty shaved into a lion cut. Usually, the ruff and tail are untouched and pom-pom tufts are left on the ankles, but there are several variations to this cut. I just love them in lion cuts! says Karen Williams of Baywatch Maine Coon Cattery in California. The cats love it! Unless theyre being shown, once you get them shaved, youll never keep them longhaired again.