Probably everyone who has ever had a cat has seen them doing two things – grooming themselves and occasionally retching or urging. Of course, these are often linked by hairballs.

What is a hairball?

Unsurprisingly, a hairball (or furball) is a ball or mass of hair, held together by felting (where compression has transformed the hair strands into a solid, knotted mass) and mucus (from saliva and intestinal juices).

Cats groom themselves primarily by licking their coat – this removes loose and damaged hairs, which stick to the tongue and are swallowed. In the stomach, the strands of hair are indigestible, so tend to stick and clump together, forming a solid mass.

OK, but they’re harmless aren’t they?

It depends how big they are, and where they end up. Most hairballs are simply small pellets that travel through the intestine and are passed in the faeces without incident – certainly they shouldn’t cause distress to the cat. The presence of the mass in the stomach may make the cat retch, but this is uncommon in shorthaired breeds.

The problems occur if there’s an abnormally large hairball present; or if there’s an unusually large amount of hair mixed in with the normal gut contents. This can cause some genuine problems:

  • If the hairball is too large to pass out of the stomach, the cat will try and vomit it up. Unlike dogs, vomiting and retching in cats often looks like coughing, so this is commonly referred to as “coughing up a hairball”. Usually, that’s the end of the matter, but if it’s happening regularly, make an appointment to get them checked out by one of our vets.
  • If there’s a mass of hair mixed in with the intestinal contents, but it doesn’t merge to form a hairball in the stomach, the likely outcome is constipation. The mass of hair and faeces in the colon is difficult for the cat’s gut to push along, so it stays there, getting drier and drier, harder and harder. In severe cases, this may cause obstipation – a complete inability to pass impacted faeces, which requires veterinary attention.
  • The most dangerous situation is if a hairball is just small enough to pass out of the stomach, but is too big to pass through the small intestine. Then it will become lodged in the gut, causing an intestinal obstruction – this results in lethargy and distress, severe intractable vomiting and dehydration, and requires urgent veterinary treatment.

What cats are most likely to have problems?

Long-haired cats are always at risk of hairballs, but in all breeds the risk is increased by:

  • Increased hair ingestion:
    • Overgrooming due to stress.
    • Itchy skin diseases, such as Flea Allergic Dermatitis.
    • Increased rate of hair loss, seen in some skin conditions and hormonal disorders.
  • Reduced gut movement:
    • Chronic gut diseases such as pyloric stenosis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Alimentary Lymphoma.
    • Chronic pain or stress reducing gut motility.

How are hairballs treated?

It depends exactly what the problem is. If the cat has a bowel obstruction, they need surgery to remove the hairball causing the blockage, often as an emergency. If they are constipated, laxative pastes or liquids (such as liquid paraffin) may help, but sometimes we need to give them an enema to wash it out.

In all cases, however, it’s important to try and work out why it’s happening, and resolve the underlying cause if at all possible.

How do I prevent them from occurring in the first place?

If you have a cat who’s prone to developing hairballs, there are a number of different approaches that can help:

  • Groom, or even clip, long-haired cats.
  • Use laxative pastes to encourage movement through the gut.
  • Make sure your flea control is absolutely top notch!
  • Minimise stress (for example by using Feliway pheromone products).
  • Feed a specialist Hairball Diet to maximise gut movement.

If you think your cat has hairballs, give us a ring and one of our vets will be able to advise you.