Sometimes, your cat may start coughing and gagging, and suddenly spit up a hairball. The scientific term for a hairball is a trichobezoar, or a wad of undigested hair.
Though they are colloquially called hairballs, they are not actually in the shape of a ball. They are slim and cylindrical and resemble a sausage or a cigar. However, a hairball does look like a ball when it's in a cat's stomach.
When your cat does cough up a trichobezoar, it will likely be a few inches long and up to an inch thick. It won't smell very good, and it will mostly be the color of your cat's coat. It may look a bit darker because of coloring from gastric secretions like green bile.
What causes hairballs?
Cat produce hairballs because when they groom themselves, they ingest a lot of loose hair. Since your cat's tongue is barbed, it serves as a comb that takes out the hair. Keratin, the main structural component of your cat's hair, is indigestible, so it goes into the stomach and comes out either in the feces or a hairball. Usually, most of your cat's fur will be vomited up or it'll go out naturally through the feces, but sometimes there are issues that do arise and should be cause for alarm.
Knowing when hairballs are an issue
If your cat is producing hairballs once or twice a week, it's normal, but any more than that may be a problem. It's very rare, but sometimes a hairball can become stuck in the small intestine. If that happens, your cat needs to go in for emergency surgery to dislodge it.
If your cat is vomiting or coughing when the hairball comes out, your cat is uncharacteristically lethargic or your cat isn't eating, there may be a bigger issue happening and you should take her to the vet. It could be that a hairball is stuck and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Problems tend to occur more frequently in older cats because they are better at grooming themselves. Your cat is more likely to have issues with hairballs if it has a long coat or it frequently sheds. Of course, if your cat grooms itself rather frequently, hairballs are going to come up more often.
Tips for preventing and treating trichobezoars
Thankfully, there are ways to prevent and treat hairballs. Many of these are at-home remedies and don't require a huge investment of time or money. Only when you notice bigger problems should you contact your vet.
One of the homemade remedies is to feed your cat lubricants like butter and oil, which will help the hairballs come out. You can also give your cat special treats that are designed to rid of the hairballs, or get hairball gels, which lubricate your cat's swallowed fur and feces. These gels help keep your cat regular as well, and can be purchased at a pet store or online.
To prevent hairballs from happening in the first place, make sure your cat is hydrated, because it keeps the intestinal track running smoothly. You should also brush your cat's hair every day to get rid of loose hairs, and give your cat food that is high in protein, grain-free and low in carbohydrates. Just check the labels on cat food prior to purchasing. Catnip and cat grass are also beneficial, since they tend to be high in fiber.
If changing your cat's diet is not enough, you can always get a digestive supplement that contains psyllium seed. When you go to the vet, your cat may be given a prescription digestive supplement to help. With some love and care, you can ensure your cat stays healthy and happy.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.