Symptoms of Cat Intestinal Hairballs

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Cat stretching out on bed.
Cat stretching out on bed. (Image: apeyron/iStock/Getty Images)

Hairballs are clumps of undigested cat fur combined with stomach bile and digestive juices. They are oblong in shape, varying from 1 to 5 inches in length. Hairballs occur because of cats' routine personal grooming: As your cat licks himself clean, he ingests hair that collects on his tongue. Usually the hair is eliminated in the cat's stool. However, some hair can remain in the stomach, forming a hairball.

Look for These Indicators

The most common signs that a cat has a hairball are coughing, hacking and retching. In most cases, these convulsions will expel a hairball. Your cat may appear listless and lethargic. His stomach may feel upset, causing him to regurgitate his meals or eat grass when he's outside. He may have little to no appetite. Elimination issues such as diarrhea, constipation and smaller stools also signify that your cat might have a hairball. In order to prevent serious complications from developing, consult your veterinarian if you detect any hairball symptoms or if hairballs seem to be an ongoing issue with your cat.

Life-Threatening Blockages

Repeated coughing episodes that do not produce hairballs are indicative of a blockage. Hairballs can get lodged in the intestines or stomach. This is a life-threatening condition that you must address immediately. If you suspect your cat is suffering from a blockage, contact your veterinarian. A physical exam, X-rays and a blood panel can confirm a diagnosis. If a blockage is present, surgery will most likely be necessary. Hairballs can also cause respiratory complications if they become lodged in the esophagus. If your cat displays difficulty breathing, shortness of breath or wheezing, call your veterinarian immediately.

Hairball Risk Factors

While long-haired breeds such as Persians and Maine coon cats are at much higher risk for developing hairballs than others, age is a factor for all cats: As they get older, cats tend to devote more time to grooming themselves. Meanwhile, hairballs are more common during shedding season, regardless of breed or age. Shedding is the process of losing old, dead hair, which is replaced with new hair. For outdoor cats, shedding occurs in the spring and fall. Indoor cats often shed year-round.

Hairball Prevention Grooming and Supplements

Brush your cat daily to remove dead, loose hair. If you own a long-haired cat, consider taking your pet to a groomer for a haircut every six months. When brushing your cat, comb all the way to the skin to remove as much hair as possible. Purchase a pet laxative to help the hairball pass through your cat’s digestive tract. Alternatively, add a half-teaspoon of vegetable oil or butter to your cat’s food. This serves as an internal lubricant and will aid in keeping your pet’s intestinal tract free of hair.

Dietary Preventive Measures

Purchase commercial cat food intended to decrease the risk of hairballs. These diets are high in fiber and designed to improve coat health and decrease shedding. Foods containing beet pulp, fruits and vegetables are ideal. Additionally, you can increase your pet’s fiber intake by adding a small amount of canned pumpkin, oat grass or asparagus to his diet.

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