Cats are unusual creatures in many ways. Coughing up hairballs is a behavior that some cats display -- and one that mystifies many owners. Do not be alarmed if your cat coughs up what looks like a ball of fur from time to time. This is within the realm of what's normal, though there are things you can do to prevent hairballs and decrease their frequency. Here's a closer look.
What causes hairballs?
Cats groom themselves by licking their hair, and naturally, this results in them ingesting a good portion of that hair. Their digestive systems are setup to handle this, and in most cases, they're able to digest most of the hair that they swallow, passing it out in their feces. However, when they ingest too much hair at once, the digestive system may not be able to keep up. The hair stops passing through the digestive tract, and your cat coughs it up in the form of a hairball.
Not all cats cough up hairballs. Some go their entire lives and never cough one up once! Other cats may cough them up every couple of months or even weekly. Long-haired cats are more likely to develop hairballs than are short-haired cats. Cats who over-groom due to stress may also develop more hairballs because they swallow more hair.
Should you be concerned about hairballs?
Hairballs do not indicate that your cat is il,l and they aren't likely to cause any serious ailment, either. If your cat throws up a hairball every once in awhile, you don't need to do anything about it. However, if they are throwing them up regularly, you may want to take steps to address the situation since the hairballs may leave a mess around your house. Plus, even though throwing up hairballs won't cause any serious ailments, it's not exactly a pleasant experience for your cat, and they'd probably enjoy doing it less often.
How can you control hairballs?
The best way to control hairballs, especially in a long-haired cat, is to brush the cat regularly. This will remove a lot of the hair so your cat does not ingest it. Aim to brush your cat once or twice a week. If he or she does not initially enjoy brushing, start with just a few strokes per session. Your cat will soon get used to the brushing and will come to enjoy it.
If you notice your cat pulling his hair out or overgrooming, talk to a veterinarian at an animal hospital. This is usually a sign of stress and anxiety, and your cat may need an anti-anxiety medication in order to get the behavior under control. Once he or she stops overgrooming, you can expect the hair balls to come a lot less often.
There are also a number of specialty cat foods and cat treats that are designed to help decrease the frequency of hairballs. Most of these contain some sort of fat or oil, which is intended to "lubricate" the digestive tract and keep things moving. As a result, the hair passes through more easily, and less is left to be coughed up. Some hairball foods are also high in fiber, which also helps aid in digestion. Your veterinarian can recommend a hairball-fighting food or treats for your cat if you're not sure which to choose.
Generally, hairballs are not as much of a problem for your cat as they are for the owners. If you are still struggling with the mess left behind from hairballs after following the advice above, talk to your local vet about additional treatment and management options.