A cat hairball is a bolus of matted hair and food which forms in the intestinal tract of a cat. Hairballs can be a serious problem for cats, and people should be aware of the signs to look for so that they can identify a cat hairball problem early. While many hairballs are harmlessly passed through one end or the other of the cat, some can cause intestinal obstructions, which can lead to very serious medical complications including death if they are left untreated.
Many people who live with cats are familiar with the dry hacking sound of a cat trying to bring up a hairball, and with the astounding timing cats have for coughing up hairballs in the middle of the night, during critical dinner parties, and at other inconvenient moments. Hairballs are such a notorious part of cat ownership that they have been the fodder of numerous comic strips and jokes about cats.
Hairballs form because cats ingest hair on a regular basis. The digestive system of the cat is actually equipped to handle hair, both from grooming and from prey, but if a cat's diet is not well balanced, the hair may start to collect in the stomach or intestines, matting together to create a cat hairball. In some instances, the hairball may irritate the stomach, causing the cat to vomit it up, and in other cases, it may be passed during defecation. However, hairballs can also block the intestines, causing extreme discomfort.
Passing one to two hairballs a month is normal, and not a major cause for concern. If a cat starts vomiting more frequently, or develops a swollen abdomen, a lack of interest in food, an inability to defecate, or irritability, it can be a sign of a blockage caused by a cat hairball. In these cases, the cat needs to go to the vet. Surgery may be required to remove the hairball from the intestines safely.
Cat hairball prevention can be accomplished in a number of ways. Feeding a high fiber diet tends to help, as does regular grooming to reduce the amount of loose hair. Some people also have success with cat laxatives, and cat grass can also help to ease hair out of the body. Specially formulated food for cats who are prone to hairballs is also available. If a cat experiences repeated hairballs, a veterinarian may be able to provide additional ideas to help manage the problem.