Hairball awareness

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Cats are thorough groomers and rarely need baths. Constantly cleaning themselves leads to cats swallowing a lot of loose or dead hair and, as such, they are at risk of developing hairballs. Kittens are groomed continually by their mothers, and any cat owner will confirm that their pet doesn't wait too long between washes.

Most cats develop hairballs now and again, and generally it’s not something to worry about.

What is a hairball?

Whilst self-grooming is perfectly normal and some cats won't experience issues, hairballs can form in the stomach and intestines, causing health issues. A by-product of grooming, a hairball is a combination of fur and digestive juices which form within a cat’s stomach.

What causes a hairball to happen?

When cats groom themselves they lick at and swallow fur, which is how hairballs are created. During the grooming routine, the backwards-facing barbs on a cat’s tongue will help to snag and shed hairs. Although they help the grooming process, the barbs give cats no option but to swallow this fur and create hairballs.

How do I know if my cat has a hairball?

A cat that’s trying to bring up a hairball will display telling symptoms. These include retching, gagging, coughing, or vomiting, some of which may develop into serious conditions which require extensive treatment. Because of this, it's best to help your cat along with their grooming routine.

Which cats are more prone to producing hairballs?

Most at risk of suffering with hairballs are long-haired cats - the more fur they have, the more there is to shed and ingest. Fluffy cats such as Maine Coons and Persians will produce hairballs more frequently as their fur will form into clumps much faster.

Can I help my cat with their hairballs?

Watching a cat dealing with a hairball can be concerning for pet owners, as they may struggle to cough it up or appear to be choking. Although it can be hard, the best way to help them is to provide them with lots of space. It may take a few gags to produce a hairball, and this is perfectly normal. Try not to let the process get to you – just keep an eye on your cat to make sure they successfully remove the hairball and are able to stop retching.

When are hairballs dangerous?

Hairballs themselves are harmless. Only if the hairball has moved from a cat’s stomach to their intestine should you act, as this causes a serious condition which requires immediate attention from a vet. If your cat is frequently retching with no appearance of a hairball, or if they’re sapped of energy and reluctant to eat, you should seek veterinary attention.

Symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Persistent gagging, retching, or vomiting without bringing up a hairball
  • Lethargy
  • Low appetite
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • A sensitive or swollen stomach
  • Consistent nibbling on grass

Occasional hairballs are normal. If your cat is bringing them up every other week or continually for over 48 hours at a time – it may mean too much hair is finding its way to the stomach.

X-rays and physical examinations are often enough to diagnose a hairball. If it’s an exceptionally large one, surgery may be required to remove the hairball - and that could rack up those vet bills.

How can I help to prevent my cat from developing hairballs?

Adding regular coat brushing to your routine can mean there’s less hair for your cat to swallow when they groom themselves. Of course, some cats may love a helping hand whilst others may not be so welcoming. Starting a routine whilst your pet is young kickstarts a great habit that will assist in your pet's general health. It’s also an opportunity for your cat to spend some quality time together.

What if my cat hates being brushed?

If your cat really doesn’t like being brushed by you – call on a professional groomer. A groomer could also provide your cat with a regular coat trim; the less hair your cat consumes, the less likely they are to create a hairball. Any serious concerns over your pet’s coat, such as large knots or mats, or symptoms they are showing should be checked with your vet.

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