Everyone who has ever owned a cat is familiar with the horrible yacking noise (usually behind the sofa or somewhere similarly hard to reach) that signifies that it is vomiting up a hairball. This usually becomes more frequent in the spring when the cat is moulting, because hairballs are caused when the cat swallows hair when grooming itself. Although not dangerous in moderation and not a sign of an underlying disease, hairballs can become serious if they become impacted in the gut and cause a blockage, so it is important to be vigilant.
Normal hairball symptoms
You will either witness your cat bringing up the hairball (which is usually sausage shaped and rather wet and soggy but looks not unlike the contents of a shower hair trap) or you may find the hairball in the house or garden. Some cats get very distressed when they vomit and will ‘cry’ – as long as they do not continue when they have got rid of the hairball and do not appear to be in pain, and if they have always behaved this way, this is nothing to become alarmed over. A hairball every week or so is not unusual and if the cat seems well in itself then the vomiting is a natural occurrence and not a cause for concern. Finding a hairball with a bare foot first thing in the morning is not particularly pleasant, but it is not possible to prevent the process, although it is possible to minimise it.
Keeping hairball production to a minimum
Despite the fact that usually hairballs do not harm the cat, it is a good idea as a general care procedure to try to minimise their production. Since they are caused by the cat swallowing groomed hair, it makes sense to try and make sure that there is as little as possible loose hair in the coat. Long haired cats in particular need to be groomed regularly and a good brushing is nice for the cat anyway and a good excuse for a cuddle for the owner! If the cat is very long haired or if it has had problems with hairballs in the past, it is possible to get special combs which remove matted hair from the coat without changing the appearance. The comb ‘rakes’ the soft hair which tends to mat near the skin and means it does not come out with normal licking.
Grooming your cat is particularly important if you have more than one; if they groom each other they will swallow more hair than a single cat would do. There are pet foods available which contain oils to stop hairballs compacting in the gut, but these are not necessary as a permanent feeding need and may cause a lazy alimentary canal if used constantly, in the same way as laxatives work in humans. If the cat has a tendency to hairballs, feeding more fibre, butter or sardines in oil will help to keep the hair moving through the system instead of being vomited up.
Signs that a hairball is causing a problem
Your cat may try to vomit but be unsuccessful. It may also become constipated, although if an obstruction in the bowel is almost complete, the cat may leak very watery faeces around it. If the animal is straining to pass a stool and is unsuccessful, it should be taken to the vet. Hopefully, the problem will be spotted before these extremes occur; your cat will become lethargic and may object if you pick it up. The abdomen may become swollen. A dose of a petroleum based hairball medication will probably do the trick and is easy to administer. Petroleum jelly will do the same job and can be smeared on the cat’s paws to be licked off if it will not tolerate being given the dose. It is essential not to persevere for more than a day in this home treatment.
If the hairball compacts and causes an obstruction it may become so solid that the only solution is surgery. Surgery on the bowel is extremely risky, as it always carries the risk of infection and may be fatal. If the cat has been suffering from the obstruction for a while it will be in poor health as well, which will make a successful outcome less likely.
There are various early signs that your cat is having problems with excessive hairball production. Obviously the first is too many hairballs – this is perhaps not as obvious as it sounds in fact, as many cats are very discreet when vomiting as they find it unpleasant. Others will make a big song and dance about it, so the owner will become aware quickly of what is going on. But assuming that the hairball production is not public, then other signs are that the cat is lethargic, that it has unpleasant breath – this will be because of the sickness – or that it loses its appetite. The problem with these symptoms, as is so often the case, is that they are present in so many other conditions.
The bottom line is that if any animal in your care becomes unwell or behaves in a way which is not its own personal norm; a visit to the vet is a good idea. Cats in particular can deteriorate very quickly from bowel conditions and will not always make a good recovery from surgery. If a cat is having trouble coping with loose groomed hair, then it is time well spent to set aside a moment in the day to groom to thoroughly with a brush and wipe it down with a slightly damp cloth afterwards to minimise loose hair being in the coat. You will be rewarded by having a happy purring cat with no hairball problem – a nice result in every way!