Given the frequency with which many cats barf up hairballs, and the frequency with which many people step on these unpleasant clumps of fur and stomach contents, it’s completely appropriate that there should be a National Hairball Awareness Day each year. Don’t you think?
Sadly, this doesn’t mean that on the last Friday of April each year your cat will be kind enough to point out all the hairballs they’ve hacked up throughout your home, and do so prior to your bare feet finding them first. Rather, National Hairball Awareness Day is an opportunity to learn about, or refresh your memory on, what hairballs could mean and some of the steps you could take to minimize their occurrence (or even prevent them).
What Are Hairballs?Hairballs, technically called trichobezoars, are what happens when the loose fur your cat swallows doesn’t pass through his digestive system as these furs normally should. You can think of these unsightly mats of fur, saliva, and digestive juices like the troublesome clogs of hair that can sometimes clog your shower or sink drains. The big difference being, of course, that your shower drain is typically kind enough to not upchuck the offending clog right next to the side of your bed while you’re trying to sleep.
Actually, as you might imagine, it’s actually quite a good thing that your cat does vomit up any hairballs they get. Otherwise you’d be having to pay for multiple surgeries to have these obstructions removed from his digestive tract when they fail to pass through on their own.
So Hairballs Are Normal?
Well… yes and no. An occasional hairball is often perfectly normal – we all have our “bad hair” days, after all. But regular hairballs, and certainly daily hairballs, may be a sign of an underlying problem.
Conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or stomach or intestinal cancer will affect the movement of things – from food to fur – through the digestive tract, and may result in excessive hairball production.
A flea infestation, allergies, or another problem causing your cat itchiness will lead to increased grooming behavior and are therefore likely to cause an increase in hairball production.
If your cat is producing more than one hairball per week, it’s time for a trip to your veterinarian. While this frequency of hairballs may just be a byproduct of your cat’s particularly fastidious grooming nature, it may also be a subtle (or not-so-subtle, as the case may be) indication of an underlying medical problem. For your cat’s benefit, and for your own peace of mind, it’s best to find out which it is sooner, rather than later.
When A Hairball Isn't A Hairball
Sometimes a hairball isn’t actually a hairball at all! If your cat hacks like he’s trying to bring up a hairball, but nothing comes out — that may actually be a cough (this video is an example of a cough).
This is important to recognize, as coughing in cats can indicate some serious underlying conditions of their own: including heartworm disease (yes, cats get this too!), feline allergic bronchitis (“cat asthma”), lungworms, and certain others. A coughing cat is a cat that should definitely be evaluated by their veterinarian.
How Can You Prevent Hairballs?
If it’s determined that your cat’s hairballs aren’t caused by an underlying medical problem, here are a few tips that might help you keep those unsightly carpet bombs to a minimum.
- Try a hairball prevention and treatment gel, such as Laxatone. These gels typically have a lubricant to help move things along your cat’s digestive tract.
- Feed one of the diets specifically formulated to reduce hairball formation. These diets often have an increased amount of fiber to help move things along your cat’s digestive tract. Hill's Pet Nutrition, the folks who started National Hairball Awareness Day, have several diets and treats to help control hairball formation. As do many other companies. Speak with your veterinarian to see which food(s) might be best for your cats.
- But perhaps the best tip for helping to prevent hairballs is to get a good comb or a de-shedding tool (like the Furminator) and brush your cat regularly, ideally daily, to keep your cat’s loose furs to a minimum. If you can keep the loose furs from building up in his coat, you’ve got a better chance of keeping them from building up in his digestive tract... and thus finding their way under your unsuspecting foot!