Like many pet holidays, National Hairball Awareness Day isn’t about a celebration but about bringing awareness to an issue. We can all do our cats a favor by educating ourselves on how to prevent hairballs and how to recognize when hairballs are a sign of a more serious health issue.
Cats spend so much time grooming themselves, it’s no surprise they get hairballs. The little barbs on their tongues strip away undercoat hairs. Most of that hair passes naturally through the digestive tract and is expelled into the litter box. If hair gets caught in the stomach, however, it’ll form a clump that will keep getting bigger and bigger in size. The longer this wad of hair is stuck in the stomach, soaking up bile, the more likely it’ll trigger regurgitation. Then owners are left with a mess of vomit to clean up.
The amount of hair a typical cat swallows while grooming varies. Long-haired cats are most prone to developing hairballs, especially in the warm months when more shedding happens. But short-haired cats aren’t immune. Also, cats with certain skin conditions or allergies might feel the need to groom themselves more often, and may ingest more of their own hair. Older cats are also more likely to develop hairballs.
Because most cats get hairballs, you might think hairballs are no big deal beyond the gross factor. The bigger problem is that sometimes hair being collected in the stomach or the small intestine can stay there and cause a potentially life-threatening blockage in the digestive system. In this case, surgery might be required to remove the hairball. In addition, Cat Time notes that cats who frequently regurgitate their hairballs may have an underlying medical condition such as inflammatory bowel disease or even cancer. Finally, sometimes the hacking sound that cat owners typically associate with regurgitation is a symptom of something else. One cat owner wrote in Catster of bringing her cat to the veterinarian and discovering the cat had asthma that was serious enough to require medication. For all these reasons, if a cat retches without producing a hairball or if a cat seems particularly susceptible to hairballs, call your vet.
I tell cat owners that more than one or two hairballs a year is not normal. Frequently, when a cat vomits there is hair mixed in, so owners often assume that it was just a hairball—something they think is a normal occurrence. In fact, there may be something else going on with the cat medically.—Dr. Brunt, feline veterinarian
Assuming there isn’t another ailment behind hairballs, how can we as caring owners help prevent this build-up of hair in the stomach of our cats? For starters, we can brush our cats regularly, so that they swallow less hair during grooming. Next, dietary options include buying treats that contain natural vegetable fibers to help control hairballs, switching to a food formulated for this purpose, and making sure our cats have plenty of access to water as hydration will keep the digestive tract in optimal shape. A hairball lubricant might be an option too. Third, because cats can groom more frequently out of boredom, indoor enrichment (including extra playtime) can also help. Finally, if your cat has been recently exposed to changes in routine, stress prevention might help.
National Hairball Awareness Day is listed as one of the Pet Health Awareness Events of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Let’s honor this day by ensuring that our feline companions have all the remedies that they might need to cope with their inevitable hairballs.