By Jennifer Coates, DVM
At some point, almost every cat owner has had to (or will have to) deal with hairballs. The immediate concern is usually, “how do I clean up this disgusting mess?” However, once the drama has passed, take a moment to evaluate the situation. Hairballs can actually be signs of a bigger problem than a stain on the rug.
The short answer is “no.” Cats are designed to groom themselves, and in the process they invariably will swallow some hair. However, the ingested hair is supposed to move through the gastrointestinal system and pass out of the body in the feces without complication. Unfortunately, this is not always what happens. Hairballs typically form for one of two reasons:
1. Altered gastrointestinal motility
When a cat’s gastrointestinal tract is not functioning correctly, he or she may be unable to move hair out of the stomach and intestines normally. Any disease that affects gastrointestinal motility can increase the likelihood that hairballs will form. Inflammatory bowel disease is the number one culprit, but hairballs can also be associated with internal parasites, pancreatitis, hernias, foreign bodies, cancers, and other potentially serious diseases.
2. Ingesting more hair than normal
Any disease that causes cats to shed and/or groom themselves more than normal can lead to hairball formation. External parasites, infections, and allergies can all be to blame, but so can stress, boredom, pain, and compulsive behaviors. Long-haired cats also shed more than do short-haired varieties.
Even if hairballs are forming due to relatively benign reasons (e.g., a long-haired cat who grooms herself frequently due to boredom), the hairballs themselves are cause for concern. They are a quality of life issue for both cat and owner. In extreme cases, they can even grow large enough that they block the transit of materials through the gastrointestinal system and require surgery to be removed.
As always, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Options for preventing hairballs include:
If your attempts to prevent hairballs at home have proven unsuccessful, make an appointment with a veterinarian. He or she can thoroughly evaluate your cat for dermatological, gastrointestinal, and other health conditions that may be playing a role in the formation of hairballs and make appropriate treatment and dietary recommendations.
Hairballs do not have to be a fact of feline life. Vomiting regularly is uncomfortable and not normal cat behavior. Cleaning up the messes that result can be a major barrier to the formation of a close bond between cats and owners. Protect your relationship with your cat and his or her health by stopping hairballs before they form.
A medical condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed
The digestive tract containing the stomach and intestine
Not being able to cause harm; the opposite of malignant.