Of the many topics you probably shouldn’t bring up at a dinner party, cat hairballs rank pretty high on the list. Without a doubt, few conversations could bomb worse than discussing cat vomit.
But that doesn’t mean cat hairballs aren’t interesting. Sure, they can be a bit unappetizing and certainly inconvenient at times, but it’s worth knowing why cats regurgitate “balls” of fur, and what it can mean when hacking them up becomes a regular occurrence.
The Trick with Trichobezoars
Hairballs, or trichobezoars, are usually 100% normal – until they’re not. Feline tongues are covered in spiky barbs that help pull up loose, dead hair, dry skin and debris from their coats as a natural course of their self care. These barbs are pointed backwards toward the back of the throat, leading cats to inevitably swallow whatever they pick up.
Cat hair contains keratin, a protein that is actually indigestible. However, the amount of swallowed hair can sometimes be passed through a cat’ entire GI tract and deposited in the litter box (you’ve probably seen tufts of hair in and around feces when scooping litter).
If the volume of hair is too large to digest, the stomach will force the hair back up from whence they came, resulting in the dreaded hairball. Because the hair is pushed back up through the esophagus, their regurgitation is more cylindrical than ball-shaped. Cat hairballs can also include undigested bits of food, stomach acid and more. Oh joy!
Terrible Timing and Troubling Tendancies
No one can mistake the sound of a cat hacking up a hairball. They hunch over, wheeze or cough, and often seem to convulse in order to be rid of the excess hair. It usually comes at a terrible time, and in an unfortunate location.
In high-shedding seasons (fall and spring), cat hairballs may increase in frequency. Some long-haired breeds may also end up ingesting more hair than short hair breeds.
In any case, there comes a time when cat hairballs are a cause for concern.
Cat hairballs may be commonly seen 2-4 times a month, depending on the cat and the time of year. That being said, however, throwing up isn’t usually perceived as a healthy behavior.
Dangers of Cat Hairballs
Hair can actually be passed from the stomach to the intestines, where they can get stuck. This type of gastrointestinal obstruction is very dangerous and should be seen immediately. A physical exam, digital x-rays or ultrasound, and surgical removal may be required.
If your cat begins to hrow up with more frequency or intensity, please call us. They may not actually be suffering from a build up of hair, after all. Instead, other problems, like other GI issues or asthma, can cause similar symptoms.
Owners can brush and comb their cat’s coat weekly (or more) to reduce how much their cat swallows. There are also prescription diets and nutritional supplements that can help a cat struggling with this issue.