It may be hard to picture your dainty calico diva hacking up a nasty-looking hairball, but it's best for her and you if she does. Otherwise, the matted hair may eventually lead to an intestinal obstruction that requires fairly significant surgery and a whole lot of pampering afterward.
Hairballs accumulate in Kitty's stomach when she swallows dead hair during her frequent grooming sessions with that built-in brush on her tongue. Her stomach acids will dissolve some of the hair and some will pass in her stool. However, significant amounts can clump together in her intestines and cause a blockage if not expelled. When you hear a cough that sounds like an asthma attack and retching reminiscent of dry heaves, expect imminent delivery of a gooey hairball. It's not pleasant, but it means your furry diva's digestive system can continue humming along as intended. And don't look for round hairballs, since the journey up through the throat shapes them into a tube.
When Things Go Wrong
Cats usually have little trouble taking care of hairballs on their own, as long as you're willing to provide the cleanup. However, sometimes a hairball becomes too large to expel or digest, or gets tangled up with items cats accidentally swallow during play, such as yarn or string. An intestinal blockage caused by the matted fur can quickly become a life-threatening emergency and requires veterinary care. It's time to contact your vet if your feline friend develops persistent diarrhea, refuses even her favorite gourmet menu item or retches repeatedly without coughing up a hairball.
Your vet will likely perform X-rays or other diagnostic scans to locate the blockage. Generally, an incision is made in the belly and the mass is surgically removed. The surgeon will also trim away any portion of the intestines that appear damaged, then stitch the healthy ends back together. Kitty will receive IV fluids during surgery and after the procedure to prevent dehydration and give her stomach time to rest before she takes foods or liquid by mouth. She'll also be on antibiotics and pain medication. Once she's released from the hospital, your diva will have to follow a bland diet for a few days and get plenty of rest until your vet gives her permission to return to normal activity.
You'll never completely eliminate your feline's hairball production, but you can slow it down by brushing her on a regular basis with a soft rubbery brush. She'll adore the attention and you'll remove some of the dead hair she's bound to swallow during her next grooming fest. You can also try food specially formulated for hairball control or adding a little canned pumpkin to her diet to increase her fiber intake, which often helps cats pass hair easier through the intestines. Your vet may also recommend your furry friend take a mild feline laxative now and then to help move her hairballs along.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
A medical writer since 1990 and successful home-based business owner for more than 14 years, Sandra King holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications. She uses her formal education, professional insight and extensive volunteer involvement to cover topics on health and fitness, pets, parenting for a lifetime, building healthy relationships, conquering business basics and developing career goals.