OK Cat owner's. We've all been here. You get out of bed in the morning and walk down the hallway when suddenly you feel something cold, and wet squishing between your toes. The other common scenario...nothing wakes a cat owner out of a sound slumber faster than the sound of a cat about to vomit on the bed. If you own a cat, chances are you've experienced the annoyances of hairballs.
Hairballs are historically considered "normal" in cats, but what do we really know about hairballs? Well, usually log shaped rather than ball shaped, hairballs are accumulations of hair that form in the stomach and intestines of cats. As you may have noticed, cats are fastidious groomers, and they ingest a lot of hair when they are cleaning themselves. Cats' tongues have dozens of tiny barbs (papillae) that are backward-facing. These little papillae are an extremely effective hairbrush, pulling any loose hair and debris from the cat's fur into it's mouth, where it is ingested and swallowed into the gastrointestinal tract. So, what happens to all of that hair? Well, in most cases the intestines move the hair through where it is expelled in the feces. In some cases, the hair collects in the stomach and forms into large clumps, which cannot be passed into the small intestines so there's only one way left for it to go. Back out the way it came in, although occasionally the hairball passes into the small intestines where it can cause a life-threatening obstruction requiring surgical intervention.
So, are hairballs normal for cats? Well, that's partially true. A hairball once or twice a month can be completely normal in healthy cats. Especially long-haired cats. We do however become concerned when cats vomit up a hairball more than twice a month or so. This can be a sign of intestinal disease. Some common intestinal diseases in cats can affect the ability of the small intestines to move hair through the GI tract, leading to hairball accumulation.
Can hairballs be prevented? In some cases, hairballs can be minimized by frequently brushing your cat. This is not only a great way to bond with your cat(see happy cat brushing video), but it also removes a lot of the loose hair that would otherwise be ingested by your cat. Another option is to administer a commercially available, petroleum based hairball remedy. These products lubricate the intestinal tract to assist the hair in passing through into the feces. A combination of brushing and petroleum based hairball remedy can be used together to get the best results. Remember, hairballs more than twice a month on a consistent basis should prompt a visit to the vet.
One more tip: Coughing and hacking without bringing up a hairball can be a sign of a more serious problem. Monitor your cat closely. If a hairball doesn't come up after a few attempts, time to go to the vet!