You love your kitty, but hacked-up wads of cat hair covered in digestive fluids gross you out. As nasty as they are, though, hairballs need to be ejected to avoid having them become stuck dangerously in your kitty's intestines. Know the symptoms of hairballs so you can get your kitty help if needed.
Hairballs occur as a result of your kitty's fastidious self-cleansing. When she licks herself clean, loose strands of her coat sometimes get stuck on her tongue and swallowed. Most of them move through her digestive tract and exit via poop. Sometimes hairs get stuck in her belly and accumulate into wads known as trichobezoars, or informally, hairballs. Fortunately, your cat is biologically programmed to eliminate these accumulations. A series of symptoms set in motion the lovely hacking and retching that ejects the hairball. When a cat is unable to regurgitate the wad, it can create a potentially life-threatening intestinal obstruction; this situation presents additional symptoms and requires intervention.
Certain symptoms indicate your kitty will soon vomit up a hairball. She'll probably have some digestive discomfort, and may not seem too keen on eating or playing actively. A period of hacking and gagging usually precedes the moment of truth, but its duration varies widely between breeds and individual cats. Some cats also vomit before ejecting the hairball. More hacking, gagging, retching or other similar noises and actions accompany the ejection of the hairball, during which your kitty will crouch down and stretch out her neck. An elongated bundle of bile-coated cat hair on your floor is a telling clinical sign that a hairball has been coughed up.
A Stuck Hairball
What you always have to be on the lookout for are signs that your cat has a hairball she can't vomit up. This happens if the furry mass manages to pass out of the stomach and into the intestines but gets stuck there and doesn't continue all the way through to be passed in the stool. An intestinal blockage presents a medical emergency that may require surgical treatment. Your kitty may repeatedly hack and gag without producing a hairball. She'll probably also become constipated or develop diarrhea, and show little or no interest in eating. Your cat may also become lethargic or irritable, or display other behavioral changes. If you notice unproductive retching or similar symptoms, see your vet promptly.
Hairballs happen to every cat, and most often to longhair breeds. Still, preventive measures reduce the number of hairballs your kitty develops. Brush your kitty daily to remove loose hair so she swallows less during her own grooming. If you have a longhair cat, take her regularly to a professional groomer for a trim. If your kitty frequently develops hairballs, feed her a high-fiber cat food formulated to help move them along through her digestive tract. Provide your cat with more stimulation in the form of new toys and personal attention if she seems to groom herself excessively; this is usually done out of boredom. Also, consult your vet about giving your kitty a lubricant or laxative to help those wads of hair slip and slide their way out through the back end the way they should.
Eric Mohrman has been a freelance writer since 2007, focusing on travel, food and lifestyle stories. His creative writing is also widely published. He lives in Orlando, Florida.