What are hairballs?
Cats have barbs on their tongue which will pick up hair when they groom. The hair is then swallowed. Once it has been swallowed, there are two things that can happen. Either it passes through the intestines along with food and is passed out in the faeces, or it can accumulate in the stomach and start to stick together into a tight matt, usually in a sausage shape, known as a hairball. Once the hairball has formed, it is usually vomited back out without any problems, although it can cause an obstruction if it tries to go further down the intestines.
Long-haired cats are particularly prone to hairballs as their hair is more likely to clump together.
Are hairballs a problem?
If your cat only has a very occasional hairball (less than once every couple of months), this is unlikely to be a problem. However, if your cat is having hairballs more frequently, this increases their risk of one progressing and causing a blockage. It can also be an indication of other problems such as overgrooming due to stress, parasites or an allergy, or issues within the gastrointestinal tract.
If your cat is retching and not producing a hairball, you should seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
How can I prevent hairballs?
Groom your cat regularly
Regular grooming to remove as much of the loose, dead hair as possible will reduce the amount of hair that your cat eats, and therefore reduce their risk of hairballs. The frequency that your cat needs to be groomed will depend on their coat type. Long-haired cats will need grooming every few days at least, but even short-haired cats will benefit from a brush every couple of weeks. It is important to get your cat used to being groomed from a young age so that they see it as a pleasurable experience.
The ZoomGroom is a great way of removing dead hair and provides a pleasant massage experience for your cat.
Feed a hairball control diet
Diets designed to prevent hairballs are usually quite high in fibre. This encourages the hair to move down with the fibre in small quantities and get passed out in the faeces before it gets clumped together. A lot of diets designed for indoor cats have inbuilt hairball control. Click here for hairball control diets from Monster Pet Supplies.
Supplements designed to prevent hairballs may be fibre-based (as for the hairball control diets), or mineral oil-based. Mineral oil helps to lubricate the hair and aid its passage down the intestines. Available products include Katalax and Defurr-Um.