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Hairballs: Causes and Prevention

If you have a cat, chances are your cat has produced a hairball from time to time.  Hairballs are a common complaint among cat owners, particularly those with long haired cats.  But how do you know if your cat’s hairballs are just an annoyance or if they are a sign of a problem?

Cats have barbed tongues, so when they groom themselves, they remove and swallow loose hair and dirt.  That hair then passes through the digestive tract and is eliminated with the feces. If the hair is not moving properly through the digestive tract, the cat may vomit up the extra hair in the form of a mostly dry mat of fur, sometimes mixed with food.   Long haired cats will remove more loose hair and are more prone to hairballs.

Most cats will vomit the occasional hairball, but a cat that has never had a hairball problem in the past should be seen for an exam if he starts producing them frequently.

Below are some common causes of hairballs and what to do about them.

OVERGROOMING/STRESS–Cats that are stressed will often overgroom themselves, sometimes to the point of creating bald spots in their coats.  Some cats will overgroom areas where pain is present as well.  Both of these conditions lead to ingestion of extra hair and possible hairballs.  Addressing the stress triggers in sensitive cats should resolve the problem.  Cats who seem to be paying attention to one area should be examined to rule out disease or injury.

EXCESS HAIR–Long haired cats sometimes have such dense coats, their digestive systems are overwhelmed with the quantity of hair.  If you have a long haired cat that suffers from hairballs, give him some help with his coat and brush him regularly.  If your cat won’t allow you to brush him, or if his coat becomes matted, consider having a groomer shave his fur to a shorter length that is more manageable.

BOWEL DISEASE–The GI tract in cats suffering from bowel disease doesn’t function normally, lacking digestive enzymes, motility, lubrication or all three.  When the food and hair doesn’t move along the tract properly, hairballs can result.  These hairballs will not be resolved without addressing the underlying disease.

GI CANCER–As in bowel disease, GI cancers keep intestinal contents from moving through properly. In cases where the cancer is physically blocking the GI tract, surgery may be an option.

LACK OF WATER IN THE DIET–Cats get most of the water they need from their food.  Cats that eat primarily dry food are living in a perpetual state of dehydration.  Lack of proper hydration can affect many organ systems, including the GI tract.  If your cat eats mostly or all dry food, consider changing his diet.  If this isn’t possible, add a hairball remedy intended to lubricate the intestinal contents.

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