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Should I worry about my cat’s hairballs?

Watching your cat hack up a hairball is not the most pleasant part of being a cat parent, but it happens anywhere from once a year to once a week.

Today, we want to regurgitate the facts on hairballs, their prevention and treatment.

What causes hairballs?
Cats sprout 60,000 hairs per square inch on their backs and about 120,000 hairs per square inch on their undersides. That means your cat is carrying around 40 million hairs—give or take a few million depending on the breed.

It takes more than hair to make a hairball, though. Cats have spikes on their tongues to help hold prey in their mouths. These spikes also help them groom by pulling loose hair out of their bodies. Some of that hair gets swallowed where it mixes with goodies in the stomach to become a hairball. 

Can hairballs make cats sick?
While most hairballs in cats are harmless, a large or hard hairball can have life-threatening consequences. It can block a cat’s digestive tract, preventing elimination and causing the cat to stop eating. Signs and symptoms of cat hairball impaction include:

• Persistent vomiting or retching without producing a hairball
• Diminished appetite
• Constipation
• Diarrhea
• Lethargy

If your cat shows any of the above signs, contact your veterinarian and express your concern about your cat’s furball issues. 

What can I do to help prevent hairballs?
It might not be possible to eliminate hairballs, especially if you have a long-haired kitty, but you can help minimize their impact on your cat’s life and health. Try some of these remedies:

  • Ask your cat’s nutritionist if a limited antigen diet could be right for your pet.
  • Let your cat enjoy pumpkin as a natural laxative. Most cats love the vegetable’s taste, and its high-fiber content makes it a great titbit to for keeping things moving. Give your adult cat ½-1 teaspoon of plain canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling) or of fresh pumpkin baked until soft.
  • Engage your cat in activities other than grooming. Cats sometimes over groom out of boredom. Choose engaging toys, gadgets, and games to take your cat’s mind off her ablutions.

Check with your veterinarian before using any oils, butters, gels, or laxatives to help your cat pass a hairball.

When is that hacking sound not a hairball?
Cats don’t actually cough up hairballs. They vomit them. The hair isn’t in the lungs after all. It’s in the digestive tract. If your cat shows signs of labored breathing or excessive coughing, he could have asthma. Take him to the vet. If your cat is puking up many hairballs in a week, that could signal a problem, too.   

Again, it’s a good situation to discuss with your pet’s medical professional.

Final thoughts.
Hairballs are part of loving a cat. In general, they are a bigger problem for people than for cats (we have responsibility for the clean up). But keep an eye on your pet. Groom her, feed her nourishing food, and keep her engaged. Any time a pet starts to retch, cough, or throw up, make sure to pay close attention. If something worries you, consult your vet.