Hack, Gag, Cough: Tips to Control Cat Hairballs

black cat with green eyes

Though famous felines from Garfield to Puss in Boots get them, hairballs are no joke. Commonly a problem for cats, rabbits and even cattle, hairballs may be a symptom of more significant illnesses or cause issues themselves. National Hairball Awareness Day, on April 29, aims to educate pet parents on how to prevent hairballs and ensure their animal’s health and happiness.

A hairball is a collection of hair or fur that gathers in the stomach, often in a cylinder shape. The definition seems simple enough, but hairballs can get a lot more complicated. In light of the annual awareness initiative, Juliet Caviness DVM’17, a Primary Care clinician and clinical instructor at UW Veterinary Care, answered some questions to clear up misconceptions.

Why is it important to prevent hairballs? What problems can they cause?

We should pay attention to hairballs because they can be signs of other illnesses like skin or gastrointestinal diseases. Hairballs in otherwise healthy cats pose limited risks. But on rare occasions, hairballs may migrate from the stomach into the small intestines and cause gastrointestinal obstruction. This can cause severe illness and typically requires endoscopic or surgical intervention.

How do you prevent hairballs?

Hairballs usually occur either because cats are ingesting an excessive amount of hair or because their gastrointestinal tract is not moving hair through the body normally. For some cats, this means that we need to treat an underlying condition that is causing overgrooming, such as itchy skin, or causing gastrointestinal symptoms, for example, inflammatory bowel disease.

Helping cats groom with regular brushing or routine visits to a professional groomer can decrease hairballs for otherwise healthy cats. Long-haired cats may especially benefit from this. Some cats will also respond well to over-the-counter diets marketed for hairball prevention or petroleum-based supplements designed to help hair move through the GI tract more readily.

What should you do if you find your pet is exhibiting signs of having a hairball?

First, pet parents should be sure that their cat is truly experiencing a hairball. Cats who are hacking without producing any material may mistakenly be thought to have hairballs, but could actually have a cough and underlying respiratory disease, like feline asthma.

one tabby cat grooms another tabby cat

Families should seek veterinary care if their cat is experiencing unproductive hacking. If possible, try to obtain a video of your cat’s hacking to bring with you to your visit. This can help us to understand the behavior you are seeing at home.

Concerning signs to watch for are frequent hairballs, or a change in frequency of hairballs, low appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, bald spots or red skin. These can signal that your cat is experiencing gastrointestinal illness or dermatologic disease and needs additional veterinary diagnostics and treatment. If your cat is otherwise well and hairballs are rare, you may wish to try some over-the-counter remedies and monitor them at home.

How can clients best support the Primary Care clinicians that care for their animals in these and other similar situations?

Clients can help us treat their feline friends most effectively by tracking their cat’s habits at home. Logging the frequency of hairballs, any other symptoms (if present), and what management strategies have been tried at home can help us figure out the best game plan for everyone.

Alisyn Amant

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