Hairballs in cats

Cat licking its fur, causing hairballs

Cats are very good at keeping themselves clean but they also swallow fur when they are washing. If large amounts of fur accumulate in the stomach hairballs can form. Hairballs are something that can affect all cats but it is more common for long haired cats to have problems. The usual sign is that the cat sounds like it is coughing or nauseous, and then vomits up a hairball. Here you can read more about what hairballs are, the symptoms, treatment, and how hairballs can be prevented.

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What is a hairball?

A hairball is a collection of hair that the cat has consumed whilst grooming. It forms a "ball" in the cat's stomach. Although called hairballs, they are often cylindrical in shape. Fur consists of keratin, similar to humans, which cannot be broken down by digestion in the stomach and intestines. Cats often vomit up these hairballs, but they can also pass further into the gastrointestinal tract and come out with the faeces.

Hairballs can also occur if normal bowel movements are impaired. This could be due to hypersensitivity to something in the food, or chronic inflammation such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

When do hairballs become a problem for cats?

In the vast majority of cases, fur passes through the cat's gastrointestinal tract without major problems, and comes out with the faeces. However, larger hairballs can cause a risk of obstruction. The greatest risk is that they get stuck in the sphincter of the lower stomach, which is a gateway between the stomach and the start of the small intestine. Hairballs can also get stuck in the small intestine. This is relatively uncommon, but when it does, it can pose a serious health risk and without treatment it can be life-threatening.

What symptoms can a cat show if a hairball is stuck?

Typically, cats will vomit, this may be more or less frequently than usual. Cats may become subdued and lethargic. They may not want to eat and may have fewer bowel movements. If they are affected by pain, their breathing rate may increase. It is not only a hairball blockage that can cause these symptoms. Contact your vet for advice if you notice these symptoms in your cat.

What will the vet do?

At the clinic, the vet will ask for an accurate history about your cat and do a physical examination. In addition to this, they may suggest diagnostic test such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging of the abdominal cavity (x-ray with or without contrast fluid and / or ultrasound)

If the vet identifies a blockage, this usually requires surgery under general anaesthesia to remove the hairball.

What can I do to reduce the risk of hairballs in my cat?

If your cat has repeated problems with hairballs, the first step is for your vet to rule out any underlying diseases. If no underlying cause is found, you can use the following methods at home to try to prevent them:

  • Brush your cat daily to remove loose fur and minimise fur intake when washing
  • Long-haired cats can be trimmed or clipped, either by purchasing pet clippers, or by taking your cat to the groomer or vet clinic.
  • Provide a specialised diet to counteract hairballs, for example, Royal Canine Hairball Care, Hills Science Plan Cat Adult Hairball, or Purina One Coat and Hairballs. Give small portions of the food, which has been shown to stimulate more frequent emptying of the stomach, rather than large portions less often.
  • Give a cat malt diet supplement that is designed to counteract the formation of hairballs.

Get help with a first assessment!

If you are unsure whether you need to seek help for your cat or are worried about another reason, you can book a conversation with a vet at FirstVet for advice and an initial assessment.

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