Reviewed and updated for accuracy on March 25, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Most cat owners have dealt with hairballs in cats at one time or another. Vomiting an occasional hairball is normal for most cats. However, if the vomiting is persistent, is frequent or appears to be painful, it may indicate a more serious health issue.
What Causes Cat Hairballs?
All cats groom by licking themselves. The feline tongue is actually barbed so that it functions as a miniature comb that removes loose hair. So as cats lick their fur, they swallow hair.
Normally, the ingested hair passes through the intestinal tract and is passed through the feces. When hair accumulates in the stomach, it forms cat hairballs that are vomited instead.
Cat hairballs are long, cylindrical masses of hair that you can see in the vomit of the affected cat.
Diagnosis of Hairballs in Cats
Diagnosing hairballs in cats starts with seeing the hairball itself. Occasional cat hairballs are normal for most cats and may require not additional diagnostics.
However, if cat hairballs are seen frequently, or if vomiting or coughing occurs without the presence of hairballs, additional diagnostics may be necessary.
Routine blood screens that consist of a complete blood cell count, a blood chemistry profile and perhaps a thyroid screening test may be recommended.
The complete blood cell count looks at the red blood cell and white blood cell counts and morphology. A blood chemistry profile evaluates kidney and liver function and measures serum electrolytes (such as sodium, calcium and phosphorus), blood protein levels and blood glucose (sugar) levels. A total T4 test evaluates thyroid function.
A urinalysis may be collected to further evaluate kidney and lower urinary tract function. Fecal examinations are normally also performed to check for intestinal parasites. Depending on the results of these tests, other diagnostic tests may be recommended.
Abdominal radiographs (X-rays) and/or an abdominal ultrasound may be advisable for a cat who vomits or has frequent or difficult hairballs. This is done to evaluate the health of the stomach, including whether it is able to empty, as well as the health of the intestinal tract.
In some cases, an endoscopic examination of the esophagus or intestinal tract may be in order.
Treatment for Cats With Hairballs
There are a number of cat hairball remedies. Most of them are petroleum-based and essentially attempt to lubricate the hairball, making it easier for your cat to pass it through the intestinal tract as feces. These work for some cats with hairballs.
There are also a number of types of commercial cat food that are marketed to help prevent and/or control hairballs. Most of these diets feature a high volume of fiber and work on the assumption that the fiber helps keep the gastrointestinal tract moving normally. These may work for some cats but are not effective in all cases.
For those cats with frequent hairballs or who have difficulty expelling them, your veterinarian may recommend prescription food additives or prescription digestive support for cats.
If other underlying diseases such as parasites, inflammatory bowel disease or bacterial overgrowth are diagnosed, appropriate treatment should be instituted.
Prevention of Cat Hairballs
Grooming your cat is one of the best things you can do to prevent cat hairballs. Regular brushing and/or combing removes much of your cat’s loose hair before it can be ingested, thus limiting the amount of hair that your cat swallows.
In turn, less hair ingested means fewer cat hairballs being produced.
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