Cough It Up

January 4, 2013

It is a fact of life that cats can have an occasional hairball. Truthfully, our feline friends are well-designed to be able to ingest large quantities of fur without digestive trouble. Cats are meticulous groomers, and some seem to spend the greater portion of most days grooming themselves (when they’re not sleeping of course!) As a result, they do ingest a fair quantity of fur, and their GI tracts are designed to handle it. On occasion, hair may collect in the stomach and aggregate into a solid mass (called a trichobezoar), too large to pass into the intestine. This can result in vomiting, and production of a hairball in the vomitus.

How often should Fluffy have hairballs? There is no one size fits all answer to this question. Longhair cats tend to have more frequent hairballs than shorthair cats. When cats are shedding more, as can happen in the warmer months, more hairballs may be seen. For the average shorthaired cat more than 1-2 hairballs a month would be┬áconsidered excessive. For a longhaired cat, 3 hairballs a month can be abnormal. Brushing Fluffy more frequently, particularly if she’s a longhair cat, can help minimize shedding and hairball production.

The reality is that most cats with chronic, excessive hairball production have an underlying disease process at work. Cats that bring up hairballs multiple times per week most commonly suffer from gastrointestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease, a food allergy, or GI lymphoma. Another possibility is that, if a cat is grooming excessively due to dermatologic disease such as a flea allergy, environmental allergies (atopic dermatitis) or food allergies, this can contribute to excessive hairball production. (How to tell if your cat is an over-groomer? Feline over-groomers tend to have completely bald abdomens, and sometimes sparse hair over their lower limbs, and near the base of the tail.)

What if Fluffy is making repeated “hairball-like” sounds (e.g., gagging or retching without producing a hairball)? Most likely, Fluffy is coughing, not attempting to vomit. Fluffy should be seen by your veterinarian to rule out asthma, which is far and away the most common cause of this retching-like behavior in cats. If Fluffy has a hairball to bring up, she will bring it up; repeated gagging behavior is usually not in fact gagging, but coughing. (Click here for a YouTube video of a cat wheezing with an asthma attack.)

In short, hairballs are rarely a primary problem, but an indication of some other disease process. An occasional hairball is not a cause for concern, but multiple hairballs per week, a sudden increase in frequency of hairballs especially if coupled with weight loss, or hairballs in conjunction with hair loss are all indications to have Fluffy evaluated by her veterinarian. Sometimes, the solution to hairballs is as simple as selecting the right diet, particularly if a food allergy is suspected.

A word about PetroMalt and other hairball remedies: I once heard an internist say at a lecture on feline internal medicine that “cats with hairballs don’t have a grease deficiency”. In other words, greasy supplements designed to help cats pass hairballs are ineffective because they are broken down rapidly by stomach acid. Cats don’t vomit hairballs because they lack “lubrication” to help the hairball pass! These products are not dangerous, but are unnecessary and ineffective. Getting to the root of why Fluffy has hairballs in the first place is really the best solution.