What Are Hairballs, Exactly, and Are They Really Normal?
If you’ve never seen or heard a cat hacking up a hairball, you might be pretty shocked the first time you experience it. Without a doubt, the sight of a cat all scrunched up, leaning over, and trying to bring something up can be quite alarming.
While cat hairballs are really common, they aren’t always 100% normal. It’s up to a discerning cat owner to know the difference between ordinary hairballs and worrisome ones.
Comes With the Territory
Cats naturally ingest hair as they groom themselves and other household cats. Lining the tongue are tiny spines, called papillae. Working like hooks, when a cat licks their coat the papillae pick up loose or dead hairs. Without them, it wouldn’t be so easy to keep themselves fastidiously groomed.
Where Does It All Go?
When cats aren’t eating or sleeping, they are likely to be self-grooming. As soon as their sharp tongue picks up hair, there is no place for it to go except down the hatch. The hair starts to collect in the stomach, and often passes through the digestive tract.
Until It Has to Come Up
The hair can form into a mass in the stomach that causes some upset. The only outcome? Regurgitation.
When the esophagus pushes the mass of hair up towards the mouth, a slightly narrow, elongated “ball” is formed. A slightly wheezy cough can accompany a hairball. Once it is out (and probably deposited right in the path of your foot), your cat will probably just go right on with their day.
Do All Cats Hack Up Hairballs?
Certain feline breeds may experience more hairballs than others. Maine Coons and Persians, for example, have longer, thicker coats and are more prone to hairballs. Younger cats are less likely to throw up hairballs because they aren’t as skilled at hair removal as their older counterparts.
Also, you may notice an uptick in hairballs in spring when cats start to shed their thick winter coats.
When Hairballs Signal Something Worse
Some cats may have two hairballs a year. Others may have weekly episodes. Wherever your cat lands on this spectrum, there are things you can do to help them.
Increase how often you brush out your cat’s coat. The more you remove dead or loose hairs, the better. Likewise, nutritional supplements or dietary changes can decrease the frequency of your cat’s hairballs.
Hairballs can be dangerous when they become too large for a cat to throw up. This can cause choking. Also, hairballs can become lodged in the small intestine if it is too big to pass. Without veterinary diagnostics or possible surgical intervention, this situation can be life threatening. Please be on the lookout for unproductive vomiting accompanied by lethargy, and contact us immediately.