What are hairballs?
A hairball is a small collection of hair or fur formed in the stomach of animals, especially cats, that is occasionally vomited up when it becomes too big. Hairballs are primarily a tight elongated cylinder of packed fur, but may include bits of other elements such as swallowed food.
What causes hairballs?
Hairballs aren’t a behavior problem, but we can use an understanding of cat behavior to help prevent hairballs in the first place. Cats love to groom, and we don’t want to prevent that. But hairballs happen when your cat ingests too much loose fur.
Because of the structure of your cat’s tongue, with small barbs that point toward the back of the mouth, those loose pieces of fur make their way into your cat’s digestive tract. Unfortunately, hair is not digestible. Usually your cat will pass this hair through their feces, or by vomiting a hairball. Sometimes, this loose hair will accumulate in the stomach, leading to digestive upset, or even a deadly blockage. These are all excellent reasons to pump up the hairball prevention strategies.
The best way to prevent hairballs is to help your cat out with the grooming by brushing or combing them regularly!
The right tool for the job
There are several different tools available - you may have to experiment a little to find a brush or comb that works for your cat and their fur type. Here are a few examples of excellent grooming options.
Slicker Brush - a smoothing brush with metal tines. Great for most cats, but go gentle to avoid breaking hairs.
Zoom Groom and other rubber brushes are good for removing loose hairs. It has a “massaging” like feel - but can be too intense for cats who are sensitive to touch.
The Fur-minator - excellent at de-shedding and getting at your cat’s undercoat. Don’t go overboard with this one, as they are very effective! They make different models depending on whether your cat is short or long-haired.
Flea comb - has small tines that are close together. It’s not just for getting fleas, but use it with a gentle touch
Human hair brush - a soft brush can be nice for short-haired cats. Long-haired cats may need additional tools to gather loose fur.
Getting started with grooming
Keep in mind that cats are incredibly sensitive to touch. Keep grooming sessions short at first. Start by extending the comb or brush to a few inches in front of your cat’s face. They will sniff it, and maybe even rub against it. Offer your cat a treat. If they are receptive, you can try a few strokes.
Focus on areas that cats are usually more receptive to touch -- the checks, head and neck area.
Build up to more sensitive areas, always using a light touch (unless your cat really enjoys more), and pairing with treats. You may have to start with a softer brush and build up to a more effective tool.
Pick times when your cat is more relaxed, mellow or even sleeping. They may be more receptive to brushing then.
Gradually increase the time of the grooming sessions, or if your cat really has a limited tolerance for grooming, keep sessions short, focusing on a different area each time so you can eventually cover all areas that need a little love.
Low-stress = low-shedding?
When cats are stressed, they may exhibit excessive shedding. This is normal, but highlights the importance of keeping our cats happy. Cats under chronic stress may also overgroom, which increases the chances of ingesting fur, leading to that vicious hairball cycle.
To keep your cats happy, provide them with an environment they can thrive in! Provide them with climbing options, scratching posts, clean litter boxes, cozy hiding spots to feel safe in, and things to keep them busy (toys, food puzzles, window perches, and the like). Don’t forget to engage your cat in some interactive playtime and exercise each day, and don’t forget the cuddles (if your cat is the cuddling type). Cats thrive off of positive, gentle interaction and a healthy dose of routine in their daily lives.
If you have more than one cat, make sure you have multiple resources (food, water, litter boxes, scratch posts) in different areas of the home to reduce stress and competition. If your cat otherwise seems stressed, please talk to your veterinarian and/or a behavior profession to help out.
A healthy cat has a healthy coat
Although cat food can’t prevent hairballs 100%, your cat should have a sleek, glossy coat. A high quality diet can definitely help your cat have a healthy coat and digestive system, which will reduce the chance of excessive shedding and hairballs.
Don’t assume it’s hairballs!
If your cat is coughing, don’t assume it’s hairballs. Especially if your cat coughs, but rarely produces a hairball, or if your cat is otherwise vomiting liquid or food. Those are warning signs that warrant a discussion with your veterinarian.
When your cat is unkempt or won’t let you groom them
Some cats might be a little unwilling to put up with a grooming session, or may become matted. This often happens with cats who are overweight or arthritic, and cannot adequately groom themselves.
A mat is a clump of hair that has become twisted or knotted together. Mats can be incredibly painful for your cat. You must PROCEED WITH CAUTION if your cat is matted. You do not want to just try to cut out mats with scissors yourself as delicate skin can be twisted inside the mat. Scissors can injure your cat. Mats are generally a matter for a veterinary visit or a professional groomer, and some cats may need a “lion cut” or a partial shave to remove mats.
Call your vet and find out if they offer grooming appointments, or look for a fear free groomer in your area. Some cats may get very stressed at grooming appointments, in which case, a fear free vet can help you decide whether your cat needs a pre-visit medication to help. See https://fearfreepets.com/ for more info!
We teamed up with feline nutritionists to cook up three recipes that cut the filler and focus on what cats need for a happy, healthy life.Learn More