Hairballs (Trichobezoars) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Cat tongues have backward-facing barbs to assist with pushing food towards their throats. As they groom, they constantly ingest small amounts of loose hair. When ingested hair develops into a mass within the GI tract it is referred to as a hairball or trichobezoar.

• During routine grooming, most swallowed hair passes through the digestive system and is expelled, undigested, in the feces

• If the hair tangles on itself, it forms a mass too large to pass through the stomach, forming a hairball

• Cats that groom excessively, have long hair, or have conditions affecting stomach motility are at risk of developing hairballs

• Once formed, a hairball may be regurgitated

While not life-threatening, vomiting up hairballs frequently is not normal and warrants investigation 

Very large hairballs can cause a life-threatening intestinal obstruction

• Treatment options include laxatives, dietary modifications, environmental controls, and surgery

A Closer Look: What are Hairballs in Cats?

Hairballs are a common condition in cats.

While an occasional hairball is not a reason for concern, frequent vomiting of trichobezoars is a reason for concern and veterinary attention is advised.

If a hairball grows too large to be expelled by vomiting, it can pass into the intestines and cause an obstruction, preventing nutrients and waste from passing through the GI tract. Left untreated, this can lead to the animal's death and as such must be treated as an emergency.

Risk Factors

When a hairball is small enough to ascend the GI tract and be expelled from the mouth, the animal’s life is not a risk. Small trichobezoars may also pass into the intestines and be expelled with the feces. When the mass of hair becomes too large to be expelled via vomiting, the hairball can cause an intestinal obstruction that can be life-threatening.

Long-haired breeds are more likely to develop hairballs. Older cats spend more time grooming than younger cats and are more prone to developing hairballs. Cats shed all year round, but spring and fall are peak shedding seasons which correlate with an increase in occurrence of hairballs.

Possible Causes

Hairballs are caused by ingested hair that can not be expelled in the feces. Ingestion of large amounts of hair can be caused by skin conditions that cause excessive shedding and overgrooming.

Excessive grooming is commonly caused by: 

• Stress 

• Pain from other conditions such as urinary tract pain, abdominal pain, or musculoskeletal pain

Anxiety

• Psychogenic alopecia

• Skin infections that cause itchiness

Some hairballs develop from conditions that interfere with normal movement of the stomach to pass food materials into the intestine. Examples include:

Inflammatory bowel disease

• Gastrointestinal cancer

Main Symptoms

Symptoms of hairballs in cats include:

Vomiting 

• Presence hairballs in the animal’s vomit

• Dry cough

• Gagging 

• Loss of appetite 

Constipation

Lethargy

Testing and Diagnosis

If the cat regurgitates hairballs, the diagnosis is self-evident. A cat presenting symptoms associated with hairballs undergoes the following diagnostics: 

• Physical examination 

• Diagnostic imaging: diagnostic imaging is used to identify intestinal obstruction 

• Blood tests

Steps to Recovery

Once diagnosed, treatment options include:

• Hairball preventative treats

• Dietary modification 

• Regular grooming with a comb or brush

• Laxatives

If the hairball is causing an intestinal blockage, surgery may be required to remove the obstruction  Over-the-counter medication such as laxatives and hairball preventative treats should only be administered with veterinary guidance. 

The prognosis for hairballs is generally good. If the hairball causes an intestinal blockage prognosis is guarded.

Prevention

Hairballs are not contagious. Prevention strategies include:

• Frequent grooming: daily brushing and combing the animal's coat is the best way to prevent the formation of hairballs

• Hairball-preventing diets: high fiber diets can help hairballs pass through the GI tract

Are Hairballs Common in Cats?

Occasional hairballs are very common in cats. Recurring or frequent regurgitation of hairballs is also common, but may indicate a more serious underlying problem and should not be ignored.

Typical Treatment

• Hairball prevention treats

• Dietary modification 

• Regular grooming with a comb or brush

• Surgery

• Laxatives

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