Let me describe an all-to-familiar scenario. As we dream peacefully in our beds, at times we find ourselves awakened in the middle of the night by nature’s call. In an attempt to not awaken others or blind ourselves by turning on the light, we clumsily stumble from bed in the dark and head towards the bathroom. And then it happens… a bare foot gushes into a warm (or cold) slimy feline surprise left, often covertly, in our path to the much needed place of relief. We have stepped in a hairball! As we are now forced to clean up this mishap with a late night foot bath and carpet clean, many thoughts, some not so nice I am sure, pop into the head most commonly… why does my cat do this and what is this!?!?!
Cats are naturally clean animals. They groom themselves with tongues that contain rough barbs that will catch hair, dirt and other debris on the fur coat. This hair and debris is then swallowed. The amount of hair that is swallowed by a cat during normal grooming should pass through the gastrointestinal tract and be expelled in the feces.
This isn’t always true of cats that are bred for longer fur coats. Longer hair equals more hair to groom. This added amount of hair swallowed can be too much for the cat’s digestive tract to handle which can, in turn, lead to hairballs. It is important for the owners of long haired cats to REGULARLY groom and brush these cats to help avoid such issues.
Over grooming also leads to the ingestion of more hair than a cat’s digestive tract can handle, which in turn often leads to hairballs. Over grooming can be an indication of potential disease. Allergies to fleas, certain elements in food, and environmental allergens can bring about over aggressive grooming. Stress and anxiety issues can also lead to over grooming, often noted as a coping behavior. Over grooming can also be seen in cats as a response to pain. For example, a cat may lick a sore joint in attempt to alleviate some of that pain.
Hairballs that come about in cats that are grooming themselves at a normal level can also indicate potential problems. Primary diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, such as inflammatory bowel disease, can effect the natural lubrication of the surface lining of the intestines and their over all mobility. This in turn affects how food and other things, like hair, will pass through the gut. Other diseases, not primarily of the gastrointestinal tract, can also affect it in a variety of ways. Vomiting and hairball production can be a sign of these diseases.
As you can see hairballs can be more than just a nasty, late night nuisance. They can be an indication of a potential health issue. If you note an over abundance of hairballs in your cat, please consult with your veterinarian. A good thorough patient history and exam will often reveal a potential cause. With the help of certain diagnostic tests you and your vet may formulate a plan to treat the inciting cause of your cat’s hairball problem. – Peter Olson, DVM
Peter Olson, DVM, is a 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine. He and his wife Beth share their home with two dogs, two cats, four turtles and a Russian Tortoise.