Beyond 9 Lives: That Hacking You Hear is a Hairball

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

We’ve all made that unfortunate discovery, and of course it’s on the carpet — it’s a hairball. For most cats, hairballs are completely normal and nothing to worry about, but hairballs can occasionally indicate some potential health concerns.

What are hairballs? And what causes them?

Not surprisingly, hairballs are clumps of fur that collect in your cat’s stomach as a result of the grooming process. Though most of the hair that cats swallow passes through the digestive system and ends up in the stool, some of it remains in the stomach or small intestine. The presence of these foreign bodies irritate your cat’s digestive system and triggers a very sensitive gag reflex, leading to that retching sound that every cat owner knows.

 Can hairballs be harmful to cats?

As mentioned above, hairballs are generally benign, causing little more than periodic hacking, gagging and vomiting. Occasionally, they may also cause a decrease in appetite, constipation or an upset stomach. In addition, frequently hacking up hairballs can lead to your cat vomiting food or mucus instead as it tries to get the fur clumps out. If your feline friend is retching up hairballs frequently, it could indicate that your kitty is suffering from underlying gastrointestinal problems.

Frequently, owners think their cat is trying to get up a hairball, but nothing is coming up. Cats are really good at vomiting — if they need to get a hairball up, they will. If you are seeing your cat attempting to get a hairball up, but nothing is coming, it’s likely coughing. Coughing can be indicators of asthma, parasitic infections, or even fungal infections so be sure to contact your vet for an appointment if you notice this behavior.

So what constitutes vomiting more often than normal?

It depends entirely on the cat in question. Given that longhaired breeds are more susceptible to getting hairballs, those cats will have them more frequently than their shorthaired cousins. Because of this, it can be hard to tell what “normal” is. So the best course of action is to consult your vet if you believe that your kitty is getting hairballs too frequently. He or she can run tests to rule out any underlying conditions.

What can be done to reduce hairballs?

Assuming that there is no pernicious cause for your cat’s hairballs, the following steps can help reduce their frequency:

If your cat has long hair, brush it daily to reduce the quantity of fur shed and therefore amount of hair swallowed while grooming. Following the brushing, you can also wipe your cat’s fur with a clean cloth to remove any loose hairs.

Talk to your veterinarian about feeding your cat specially formulated foods that reduce hairballs. In addition to reducing shedding, these also tend to improve its skin and coat, and to increase the amount of fiber in your kitty’s diet.

Ask your vet about hairball remedies or lubricants that help your cat pass the hair through the intestinal tract instead of hacking it up.

If your cat grooms itself excessively (for reasons other than an underlying disorder), try distracting it by playing with it more frequently or by introducing a new toy into playtime.

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