Even if your pet name for Fluffy is "Little Furball" or a variant, you don't want to see, step in -- or hear the delivery of -- actual fur balls. There's nothing comparable to the sound of your cat hacking up what looks like hairy vomit on your best rug.
Hairballs have a formal name -- trichobezoars -- which is not what you call them if you step on them in your bare feet. These charming globs of fur and stomach juices result from your cat's fastidious grooming habits. When he's cleaning himself, he'll end up swallowing some of the hair. Normally, it passes through his system and ends up in his feces, so you're none the wiser. It can collect in his stomach, though, eventually to be thrown up in the place calculated to annoy you the most. For all that, they're better out than in. They can get stuck in his intestines, causing an impaction. If your vet can't remove it through lubrication, Fluffy requires surgery to get that hairball out of there. Signs of hairball impaction include constipation, depression, appetite loss and attempts to vomit with nothing coming up.
The best way to get rid of hairballs is to keep them from forming in the first place. Prevention occurs on several levels, beginning with regular grooming. Brush your cat thoroughly every day. Don't think of it as a chore -- most cats love brushing, and it gives you time to bond. When you're finished brushing, wipe him down with a slightly wet towel. That helps get rid of any loose hair. If you have a longhaired cat, you might want to invest in professional grooming.
If your cat develops a serious hairball problem, you might want to switch him to a special diet formulated for hairball control. It's normal for cats to hack up a hairball every couple of weeks, but beyond that it's excessive. These "hairball control" formulas are available in both commercial and prescription foods. Ask your vet for advice on the best food for your particular cat.
You can purchase hairball remedies at pet stores. Ask your vet to recommend a particular brand or type. Some hairballs remedies are available in the form of treats, so Fluffy doesn't realize it's helping him. Most hairball products are flavored to appeal to a cat, but if your cat refuses to take it from you, wipe the gel on his paws for him to lick off. Give him a hairball control remedy once or twice weekly, or according to the directions on the package.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.