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Ask the Vet: hairballs

Question: Our cat brings up hairballs on a regular basis (about every 2-3 weeks). Is this a serious problem and should we do anything about it?

Answer: All cats will bring up an occasional hairball (called a trichobezoar) and it is perfectly natural.  This is because cats groom themselves on a daily basis and can swallow large amounts of hair in the process. This hair mixes with their food and is passed through the stomach and intestines harmlessly and comes out in the stools.

While vomiting up an occasional hairball is quite normal, if it occurs on a regular basis i.e. more than 1-2 times per month, there may be an underlying medical problem.

Girl holding a catFor example, hairballs can be a symptom of an underlying intestinal inflammation, known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Cats with IBD groom themselves excessively in order to swallow hair as a means of protecting the inflamed and irritated linings of their stomach and intestines.

Another possible reason for vomiting up hairballs is an adverse food reaction such as a food allergy or a dietary intolerance. A cat suffering from a food allergy will often swallow lots of grass or large amounts of hair in order to fill their stomach in order to reduce their discomfort and/or induce vomiting.

In other cases, there may be gastric motility issues (i.e. changes in the emptying time of the stomach) that can lead to hair retention and hairballs. Gastric motility is affected by factors such as anxiety, stress, feeding dry cat food and constipation.

In rare cases, cats with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will groom themselves compulsively and swallow abnormal amounts of hair. Their OCD is often the result of stress or anxiety.  Behaviour modification drugs may reduce their stress or anxiety levels and put a stop to the excessive grooming and thereby reduce the incidence of hairballs.

An occasional hairball can be easily managed by using hairball remedies available from your veterinarian.  These medications usually contain a safe lubricant that aids in the passage of hairballs through the digestive tract.  There are also special diets available that control and reduce the incidence of hairballs. You should also groom your cat more frequently to reduce the amount of hair that can be swallowed.

To be on the safe side, have your cat examined by your veterinarian and discuss this issue with him or her.

Dr. Berney Pukay photo

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