Why do Cats Cough up Hairballs

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It’s a frequent refrain heard at the vets office- “why do cats cough up hairballs?” Hairballs are a fact of life for cat owners, but that doesn’t make dealing with these unpleasant occurrences any easier. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help minimize hairball formation, and keep your cat from developing a more severe medical problem as a result.

So, why do cats cough up hairballs? They are part of an unfortunate cycle in the normal cat. The feline affinity for grooming themselves, combined with a tongue covered with a rough, comb-like surface, leads to the unavoidable ingestion of small amounts of hair. Because hair is not digestible, it begins to accumulate in the stomach and intestines. Over time, this accumulation continues to grow and mix with bits of undigested food, mucous and digestive acids, and when it gets large enough, create a blockage. This blockage can cause difficulty for food and water to pass, causing the telltale coughing, gagging and retching episodes.

Hairballs can occur in any cat, but are more frequently seen in older cats that are more fastidious and well-experienced groomers. Long-haired breeds have a far greater risk of developing hairballs, as the dead hair they groom out of their coat can accumulate quickly.

Why do cats cough up hairballs? If they didn’t, they would inevitably continue to grow in size until they became an obstruction in the intestines, and completely blocked food and water from passing through. While it is not uncommon or unhealthy for a cat to cough up a hairball about once a week, to do so any more frequently, or have any other symptoms of illness is a sign that veterinary attention may be warranted.

Signs of hairballs include a dry cough and frequent retching, especially after meals. Small spots of yellow bile on the floor or carpet are evidence of unsuccessful attempts to void hairballs. Constipation, or hard stools with visible hair may be seen as some bits of hair make it through the digestive system successfully. Finally, the hairball itself- a cigar-shaped wet, sticky and stinky mass, usually about 1-2 inches long.

While coughing up a hairball once a week may not signify a major medical problem, prevention and treatment can help to prevent further illness.

Prevention is the single best way to treat hairballs. The most effective form of prevention is through daily brushing of your cat. While long-haired cats may be the most obvious candidates for brushing, short hair cats can also benefit greatly from the practice. Although not all cats appreciate being brushed at first, their natural affinity for grooming can help them become quite fond of regular brushing once they realize what is going on.

Use of a slicker brush can act similarly to the “comb” on the cats tongue by brushing and separating hairs, as well as removing loose and dead hair from the undercoat. Some long-haired cats may require use of an actual comb as well to get the longer, more matted tufts of hair. Brushing will yield an amazing amount of hair from your cat, even when done on a daily basis. Once you’ve seen how much hair your cat actually looses when he grooms himself, you’ll understand how a hairball can quickly develop- and why brushing is such a powerful tool for prevention.

In cats that do not tolerate brushing, or when it isn’t feasible, shaving is a viable alternative. A “lion cut” can make your long-haired cat more comfortable in the summer, as well as help to prevent hairballs year-round. How often your cat needs to be shaved will depend on how fast his coat grows, but typically it may need to be repeated every 4-6 months.

While brushing can help to minimize the occurrence of hairballs, some cats will continue to develop them despite your best efforts. Luckily, there are a plethora of treatments and remedies available to help treat and rid your cat of hairballs.

Gel-based hairball remedies are the most common and commercially available treatment for hairballs. Fed for several days when the signs of hairballs are present, these gels contain lubricating ingredients and bulk to assist the cat to pass the hairball in the feces. These gels should not be used on a regular basis, or as a means of consistent prevention, as the lubricating agent used in most of them, mineral oil, can deplete the body of natural vitamins if given over a long period of time.

The recent advent of treats that can assist hairball removal are a great tool for use in cats that won’t easily take the hairball gels. They come in a variety of forms and flavors, but all work in the same way as the gels, assisting the body to void the hairball through the feces. Because these treats may also contain a lubricating ingredient, it is important to follow label directions carefully to ensure long-term use is acceptable.

Hairball-formula pet foods may be available at your local pet store. Most of these are designed for long-term use, and their added fiber content works to assist the passage of hair.

There are many home remedies that cat owners have found work on hairballs with varying degrees of success. The most common of these is the addition of a small amount of canned, non-flavored pumpkin to your cats food every day. The pumpkin provides a natural source of fiber and lubrication to help hairballs pass. In addition, the higher level of fiber can help with constipation and diarrhea problems related to hairballs. Most cats eat the pumpkin additive readily.

Other common home remedies that have been used to help control hairballs include the administration of wheat bran, psyllium and slippery elm. However, you should always consult your vet prior to starting any type of treatment for hairballs.

While hairballs in cats are normally an annoying but easily manageable problem in cats, in some situation they can progress to become a life-threatening emergency. If a hairball becomes too large, or gets stuck in the progressively smaller diameter of the intestines, it can create an obstruction that may require surgery to correct. If your cat has been struggling unsuccessfully to void a hairball for more than two days, or is lethargic or refuses to eat, you should consult your veterinarian immediately.

Hairballs are a fact of life for cat owners. But with careful attention and a little prevention, can you can help to ensure that hairballs do not cause a serious problem for your cat.

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