It’s a complaint I hear frequently in my veterinary practice: “Doc, my cat vomits hairballs all the time. That’s normal, isn’t it?”
The truth is, it may not be normal, especially if the vomiting is frequent.
While it is true that most cats will vomit occasionally as a result of ingested hair, it should not be happening often. If your cat is vomiting once every few months and is otherwise healthy, that’s probably not of major concern. However, if your cat is vomiting several times a week, there may be something much more serious happening.
Hairballs are often blamed for vomiting in cats. They may also be blamed for other symptoms such as choking and/or gagging. Though it is possible for hairballs to cause these types of symptoms, there are many other conditions that can cause similar symptoms for your cat.
Further, cats have evolved to be able to handle the ingestion of some hair. Even if you are actually seeing hair in your cat’s vomitus, or are seeing the characteristic tube-like construction of hair that often makes up a hairball, these symptoms may still be abnormal if they are seen frequently.
If you truly believe that hairballs are the focus of your cat’s vomiting, it makes sense to institute measures to decrease the amount of hair your cat is able to ingest. Frequent and thorough grooming to remove loose hair is probably the one best thing you can do to prevent ingestion of hair. After all, if loose hair isn’t present in your cat’s coat, he won’t be able to ingest as much hair through his normal grooming procedures. Deshedding tools are quite useful in removing excess loose hair.
A trip to your veterinarian for an examination may be in order as well though, particularly if the vomiting continues or if you notice other symptoms, such as concurrent diarrhea, weight loss, or change in appetite.
In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association entitled Diagnosis of chronic small bowel disease in cats: 100 cases (2008-2012) examined the medical records of 100 cats with clinical signs of chronic vomiting, chronic small bowel diarrhea, weight loss, or a combination of these. Abdominal ultrasonography combined with laparoscopy and biopsies of the small bowel were used to aid in diagnosis for these cats.
The study concluded: “Results suggested that cats with clinical signs of chronic small bowel disease should undergo detailed diagnostic testing because they are likely to have clinically important, diagnosable, treatable disease. Clinical signs of small bowel disease, especially weight loss and chronic or recurrent vomiting, are extremely common in cats. These signs should not be considered a normal condition and should not be ignored, regardless of common explanations given by owners, and cats with these signs should undergo appropriate diagnostic testing.”
The most common diagnoses made in affected cats, according to the study, were chronic enteritis and intestinal lymphoma. Obviously, these diseases are both a much more serious diagnosis than that of a hairball. If your cat is vomiting, it’s safest not to assume that hairballs are the cause unless the vomiting is quite infrequent. It’s wise to seek advice and guidance from your veterinarian if there is any doubt about whether your cat’s vomiting is normal or not normal.
Dr. Lorie Huston