Ahhh, the feeling of a slimy wad of hair between the toes first thing in the morning. Does cat ownership get any better than that? Despite how common hairballs are, they really are not normal. Cats are not owls; they’re not supposed to bring up pellets of indigestible material.

Yes, cats ingest hair in the process of self-grooming, but it should move through the digestive system and come out the other end. When this process goes awry, the hair can clump together in the stomach and not pass into the intestinal tract. It causes enough irritation that a cat will usually vomit up the wad, and voila … you have a hairball on your carpet or in your shoe.

In the worst case scenario, however, the hairball becomes so large and hard that it can’t exit the stomach in either direction. This mass goes by one of my favorite veterinary terms: trichobezoar (it sounds like an evil creature from the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Trichobezoars are typically dealt with surgically.

So if hairballs are not normal, why do so many cats have them? Two explanations cover the vast majority of cases:

1. Ingesting more hair than normal

It stands to reason that if a cat takes in more hair than normal, it may "back up" and cause problems. This is why we see more hairball problems in long-haired cats.

Skin diseases (e.g., external parasites, infections, and allergies) can all cause cats to shed and/or groom themselves excessively. Extreme grooming can also be associated with stress, boredom, compulsive behaviors, and concurrent illness that is seemingly unrelated to the skin or gastrointestinal system. For example, a cat with osteoarthritis may attempt to soothe herself by stimulating the release of pain-relieving endorphins through repetitive grooming behaviors.

2. Altered gastrointestinal motility

When a cat’s gastrointestinal tract is not functioning correctly, it may not be able to process even a normal amount of hair in the way that it should. Hairballs can be associated with inflammatory bowel disease, internal parasites, pancreatitis, hernias, foreign bodies, cancers, and other potentially serious diseases.

If your cat only brings up the occasional hairball and seems normal in all other regards, you don’t have to rush to the veterinarian. Try a little home detective work first. Do you have a suspicion as to what the cause might be? If you’ve gotten a little lax on the flea control and your cat is now itchier than she used to be, reinstitute your parasite-control program. Does your cat have long hair? Try helping her groom herself with regular brushing sessions. Could her diet be playing a role? Offer a different, high-quality food made from healthful ingredients and/or switch from kibble to a canned formulation. Is your cat bored or stressed by her home life? Address those issues and see what happens.

If, however, you try a few things at home and the hairballs just keep coming, make an appointment with your veterinarian. He or she should thoroughly investigate your cat’s history, perform a complete physical exam, and may recommend diagnostic testing based on this initial evaluation. Don’t be tempted to skip this step and simply reach for one of the many hairball "remedies" that are available. They might temporarily improve your cat’s symptoms, but they do nothing to address the underlying problem that is causing your cat to leave you "presents" around the house.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: forestpath / via Shutterstock