Hairballs in Cats

Cats Make the Best Alarm Clocks

What is the best alarm clock for jumping out of bed wide awake? The sound of a cat hacking and gagging, usually to deposit a nice juicy fuzzy hairball in an unsuspecting place.

Why do cats hack up hairballs? Usually, they pass right through the intestinal track to the litter box. Hairballs are a problem when the cat’s digestive system cannot move hair efficiently. If a cat upchucks a hairball as often as once a week, or the process seems to be causing discomfort, the cat needs a veterinary evaluation.

How do you know if a cat is just having hairball problems, or the vomiting is related to something else? Most cats would not think to hack up a hairball in the veterinary clinic, so you won’t see the cat actually doing it. A good history of how the cat behaves and sounds during the “event” is helpful, as well as a description (color, consistency) of the expelled contents. What is the relation to eating and how is the cat’s appetite and activity levels?

It is difficult for clients to tell the difference between retching, vomiting, regurgitation and coughing, especially in the middle of the night. Encourage clients to take a video if possible. Watching a video of the cat in action is more productive, however less funny, than watching your client trying to mimic their cat.

Of course, cats can vomit from several other causes besides hairballs. You can help the client consider:

  • Dietary indiscretion
  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • Foreign bodies
  • Parasites
  • Toxins, like houseplants
  • IBD
  • Constipation
  • And other metabolic diseases

Many treatments for hairballs involve petroleum to help make them slippery enough to pass with the feces. It is helpful to add fiber to the diet or supplement with psyllium, pumpkin, apples, or carrots.  Keep the cat’s hair healthy with supplements containing essential fatty acids, biotin, and zinc. Clients should be encouraged to regularly brush or comb their fuzzy cat, so the cat does not have to do all the grooming. After brushing, the cat may be wiped down with fragrance free hypoallergenic baby wipes or a damp paper towel.

With these suggestions, your veterinary team can help your clients sleep better with no hairy surprises.