Cat owners are intimately familiar with hairballs. While not every pet will experience hairballs at the same frequency as others (particularly those with long hair), most cats will have at least one throughout their lives.
Although hairballs are somewhat common, they aren’t necessarily safe and can actually pose risks to your cat’s health. Additionally, if you know your cat isn’t prone to developing hairballs but you suddenly discover the icky, furry problem occurring out of nowhere, they might be pointing to another underlying condition.
In essence, hairballs are a result of the combination of your cat’s self-grooming routine and its tongue. Cats’ tongues have tiny, sharp barbs on them that help pick up dirt, as well as hair, when they lick themselves clean. Unfortunately, this means that whatever is picked up by the tongue is then swallowed, meaning your cat swallows a lot of fur over the course of its lifetime.
A lot of this fur makes its way through the digestive tract and out of the body through feces. However, sometimes the fur can get lodged together, forming a hairball that is unable to pass through the intestines.
Once this happens, your cat may try to expel the hairball back up through the esophagus and mouth. This is usually accompanied by coughing or gagging noises as the cat’s body works the hairball up the throat.
Allergies may be to blame
Occasional hairballs are usually nothing to worry about. However, a sudden increase in the frequency of your cat’s hairballs can be alarming, as this generally indicates a more serious problem.
Typically, an increase in hairballs is a direct result of an increase in grooming. While there are many reasons for overgrooming in cats, such as stress or skin infections, one that many pet owners don’t consider is allergies.
Allergic reactions to food, fleas, seasonal allergens and environmental substances like household cleaners or perfumes can result in your cat developing atopic dermatitis—a reaction on the skin. Your cat may develop small red bumps and inflammation, and its skin might begin to itch incessantly. In order to soothe allergy-related itches, many cats start to lick and bite themselves.
The urgent need to scratch their itch can result in the ingestion of much more fur than usual, potentially causing more frequent hairballs. These allergic reactions may develop suddenly without warning, and you may not notice milder symptoms initially, since cats’ self-grooming is normal.
Overgrooming due to allergies can result in more than just hairballs, however. Consistent licking and biting of the skin can cause hair loss in patches, as well as skin infections or even wounds.
If your cat is experiencing more frequent hairballs, check over its body to look for signs of overgrooming and allergies. Look closely for any bald spots or thinning patches of hair, any skin infections or wounds and any redness or inflammation that may be caused by allergic reactions.
In addition to skin problems, cats suffering from allergies may also have a runny nose and weepy eyes, may sneeze or cough and may even be vomiting or have diarrhea. If you notice these symptoms along with frequent hairballs, you should book a trip to the vet.
Dangers of hairballs
If your cat is developing frequent hairballs—as often as once or twice a week—regardless of an underlying cause, you’ll want to take action to prevent them. Although hairballs aren’t extremely likely to cause harm, they do have the potential to be hazardous.
Occasionally, hairballs can make their way into the intestines, where they get stuck and create an intestinal blockage. This can be very serious and make your cat very sick, requiring veterinary help to remove the blockage.
Hairballs can also sometimes be hazardous to the esophagus if the cat can’t cough them up effectively, or they can remain in the stomach, too large to be removed by any natural means.
Additionally, if you deduce that the hairballs are caused by an underlying allergy problem, you’ll want to treat the allergies both to prevent the hairballs and to rectify the uncomfortable symptoms your cat is experiencing. This can usually be done by identifying the specific allergens your cat reacts to and using allergy supplements or medications to reduce your cat’s symptoms.
Treating your cat’s allergies may not completely prevent your cat from having hairballs in the future, but it will help reduce the likelihood by preventing allergy-induced over-grooming. And, your cat will be more comfortable day to day thanks to fewer allergy symptoms.