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When Hairballs Become Hazardous

From the Editors of The Daily Cat
Hairballs are the butt of many a cat joke, even though the telltale
hack-hack-hacking may seem commonplace to most feline
owners. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so it’s this habit that
causes hairballs -- swallowed loose fur that is not completely
digested. The problem usually warrants no cause for alarm, but
in some cases, hairballs become too big for a cat’s digestive tract
and cause blockage that can be life-threatening. It’s important
for any cat owner to know why hairballs form, why they’re so
common and when they can be dangerous.
Harmful Hairballs

“Most cats will either vomit the hair or pass it in their stool,” explains Tami Groger, DVM,
associate veterinarian at Bay Hill Cat Hospital in Orlando, Fla. The feline digestive system is
designed to handle hairballs (called trichobezoars by doctors) but only up to a certain size.
“We had a long-haired kitty who stopped eating for three days and just did not look
comfortable,” recalls Bernadine Cruz, DVM, of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California.
“Everything seemed normal, but when I [felt] her abdomen, there was something there under
the rib cage. We took an X-ray and saw this big thing. We did surgery to remove one huge
hairball -- at a cost of $2000.”

The kitty recovered fully, but the owner may still be recovering from that bill.

Another problem caused by hairballs is that sometimes their symptoms appear similar to
respiratory problems, such as asthma, which also require a veterinarian’s attention. Keeping
hairballs to a minimum will therefore help your veterinarian diagnose asthma more quickly,
should your cat develop it.

All cats get hairballs, says Dr. Groger, but “they are more prevalent in the long-haired breeds --
Persians, Himalayans, Maine Coons and domestic long hairs.” She adds, however, that she has
“seen problems with short-haired cats, as well.”

Hazardous Hairball Warning Signs       
Three key symptoms can distinguish a not-so-worrisome hairball from one that may require
immediate medical attention. These are:

  1. Continued retching that does not culminate with the expulsion of a hairball
  2. Frequent diarrhea
  3. Loss of appetite following repeated hairball episodes

All three of these symptoms could mean that your cat’s throat, stomach or intestines are
blocked by a hairball obstruction. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, schedule a visit to
your veterinarian’s office as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Hairballs
The best defense against hairballs, dangerous or not, is to keep your cat from getting them in
the first place or to make sure they can be digested. Here are some tips recommended by

  • Brush your kitty “You really need to get down to the skin to loosen some of the fur,”
    says Dr. Cruz, who recommends using a soft rubbery brush for the task. Follow up with
    gentle combing using a fine-tooth comb. Older cats especially need this care, she says,
    as their digestive systems slow down with age and they’re less able to get rid of

  • Feed your cat a specially formulated hairball care food Look for foods with beet pulp,
    carbohydrate blends and a fruit and vegetable extract known as FOS, which promotes
    healthy stomach bacteria. This combination of ingredients not only helps reduce fur balls,
    but it also enhances your cat's ability to absorb nutrients, provides bulk to move food
    through the intestines, promotes colon health and reduces waste and litter box odors.

  • For repeat hackers, increase their fiber intake Increasing fiber in your cat’s diet can
    help. The fiber will help hold onto hair and aid it in passing through the digestive track.
    Dr. Cruz suggests adding bits of asparagus, small amounts of canned pumpkin or oat
    grass to your cat’s hairball care commercial diet.

  • Offer a little oil You might also add a very small amount -- around half a teaspoon -- of
    petroleum jelly, olive oil or butter to your cat’s food. This too will help push through fur in
    the digestive system.

  • Purchase a commercial hairball remedy Commercial hairball remedies often contain
    similar fiber and oil ingredients combined with flavor enhancers to tempt your cat. Look
    for them at your local pet store. Just be sure to follow the enclosed listed directions

  • Keep a clean house Don’t allow your kitty access to pieces of string or thread around
    the house. If ingested, these can get wrapped up with swallowed fur and cause an

Hairballs are an unpleasant side effect of your kitty’s natural inclination to stay clean and
beautiful. Our job as cat owners is to allow that self-grooming but take responsible steps to
make sure it doesn’t result in a dangerous, albeit hairy, health hazard.