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When Hairballs Become Hazardous

By Elizabeth Parker

When Hairballs Become Hazardous

Hairballs are the butt of many a cat joke, even though the telltale hack-hack-hacking may seem commonplace to most feline owners. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so it’s this habit that causes hairballs -- swallowed loose fur that is not completely digested. The problem usually warrants no cause for alarm, but in some cases, hairballs become too big for a cat’s digestive tract and cause blockage that can be life-threatening. It’s important for any cat owner to know why hairballs form, why they’re so common and when they can be dangerous. 

Harmful Hairballs
“Most cats will either vomit the hair or pass it in their stool,” explains Tami Groger, DVM, associate veterinarian at Bay Hill Cat Hospital in Orlando, Fla. The feline digestive system is designed to handle hairballs (called trichobezoars by doctors) but only up to a certain size. “We had a long-haired kitty who stopped eating for three days and just did not look comfortable,” recalls Bernadine Cruz, DVM, of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California. “Everything seemed normal, but when I [felt] her abdomen, there was something there under the rib cage. We took an X-ray and saw this big thing. We did surgery to remove one huge hairball -- at a cost of $2000.”

The kitty recovered fully, but the owner may still be recovering from that bill.

Another problem caused by hairballs is that sometimes their symptoms appear similar to respiratory problems, such as asthma, which also require a veterinarian’s attention. Keeping hairballs to a minimum will therefore help your veterinarian diagnose asthma more quickly, should your cat develop it.

All cats get hairballs, says Dr. Groger, but “they are more prevalent in the long-haired breeds -- Persians, Himalayans, Maine Coons and domestic long hairs.” She adds, however, that she has “seen problems with short-haired cats, as well.”

Hazardous Hairball Warning Signs      
Three key symptoms can distinguish a not-so-worrisome hairball from one that may require immediate medical attention. These are:

  1. Continued retching that does not culminate with the expulsion of a hairball
  2. Frequent diarrhea
  3. Loss of appetite following repeated hairball episodes

All three of these symptoms could mean that your cat’s throat, stomach or intestines are blocked by a hairball obstruction. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, schedule a visit to your veterinarian’s office as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Hairballs
The best defense against hairballs, dangerous or not, is to keep your cat from getting them in the first place or to make sure they can be digested. Here are some tips recommended by veterinarians.

  • Brush your kitty “You really need to get down to the skin to loosen some of the fur,” says Dr. Cruz, who recommends using a soft rubbery brush for the task. Follow up with gentle combing using a fine-tooth comb. Older cats especially need this care, she says, as their digestive systems slow down with age and they’re less able to get rid of hairballs.
  • Feed your cat a specially formulated hairball care food Look for foods with beet pulp, carbohydrate blends and a fruit and vegetable extract known as FOS, which promotes healthy stomach bacteria. This combination of ingredients not only helps reduce fur balls, but it also enhances your cat's ability to absorb nutrients, provides bulk to move food through the intestines, promotes colon health and reduces waste and litter box odors.
  • For repeat hackers, increase their fiber intake Increasing fiber in your cat’s diet can help. The fiber will help hold onto hair and aid it in passing through the digestive track. Dr. Cruz suggests adding bits of asparagus, small amounts of canned pumpkin or oat grass to your cat’s hairball care commercial diet.
  • Offer a little oil You might also add a very small amount -- around half a teaspoon -- of petroleum jelly, olive oil or butter to your cat’s food. This too will help push through fur in the digestive system.
  • Purchase a commercial hairball remedy Commercial hairball remedies often contain similar fiber and oil ingredients combined with flavor enhancers to tempt your cat. Look for them at your local pet store. Just be sure to follow the enclosed listed directions carefully.
  • Keep a clean house Don’t allow your kitty access to pieces of string or thread around the house. If ingested, these can get wrapped up with swallowed fur and cause an obstruction.

Hairballs are an unpleasant side effect of your kitty’s natural inclination to stay clean and beautiful. Our job as cat owners is to allow that self-grooming but take responsible steps to make sure it doesn’t result in a dangerous, albeit hairy, health hazard.

Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.


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Posted on June 8, 2012

Dessie says: My cat was a stray as a kitten of about a few weeks and is nearing a year now she has very light medium long fur and her attitude/activity has always been all over the place but lately she is sleeping more and more in hidden areas when she used to be right in the middle of the walk ways sprawled on her back she is not eating as much mostly cuz she is sleeping i still see poop in her box but normally she never lets anyone hold her more than a few seconds but now she will just sit there in your arms looking pissed but unwilling to do much about it. I was thinking it could be due to a hair ball cuz she despises combs and try to kill them and she has thrown up 3 times now 2 times i think cuz she over ate it was just chewed up food and the last time it was fur from a ferret toy and her own. her last visit to the vet was a few months ago for the last of her shots and since then our insurance for our pets has run out and i cant start it up again just yet im looking for any advise on what to watch for in-case its more than her being moody. She has been fixed.

Posted on June 7, 2012

Dessie says: My cat was a stray as a kitten of about a few weeks and is nearing a year now she has very light medium long fur and her attitude/activity has always been all over the place but lately she is sleeping more and more in hidden areas when she used to be right in the middle of the walk ways sprawled on her back she is not eating as much mostly cuz she is sleeping i still see poop in her box but normally she never lets anyone hold her more than a few seconds but now she will just sit there in your arms looking pissed but unwilling to do much about it. I was thinking it could be due to a hair ball cuz she despises combs and try to kill them and she has thrown up 3 times now 2 times i think cuz she over ate it was just chewed up food and the last time it was fur from a ferret toy and her own. her last visit to the vet was a few months ago for the last of her shots and since then our insurance for our pets has run out and i cant start it up again just yet im looking for any advise on what to watch for in-case its more than her being moody. She has been fixed.

Posted on April 30, 2012

Gabe says: </a>After reading this arctlie, I am totally SHOCKED! The sentence that came to mind after seeing all of these attempts at eco-fashion WHAT WERE THEY THINKING???!!! I was freaked out my the COW NIPPLES and just thought the COUTURE FROM PETRI-DISH MOLD and CAT HAIRBALL JEWELRY were just plain SKANKY!!! It was so blatantly obvious that SOLAR-POWERED BIKINI was just an ATTENTION GETTER!!! Uncomfortable it would be to wear solar panels in the blaring hot sun!!! I hope that eco-fashion designers can truly come up with ideas that are something that everyone would want to wear. This topic is so important due to the present state of our planet and should be taken very seriously!

Posted on April 15, 2012

Maggie says: My 17 year old cat has been vomitting her food back just after she has eaten it somtimes for well over a year on and off. I finally took her to a vet who charged me £136.00 for 4 blood tests which came back inconclusve and she told me that it would need 2 more blood tests 4 days apart at a cost of £130.00. If these came back inconclusive she said the cat would need an 'ultra' blood test the cost she said would be very expensive and if this failed we were talking body scans and by the tone of her voice I would probably find it helpful to re mortgage my house!!! I only work in a shop on minimum wage and my partner is a pensioner the first payment of £136.00 was enough to throw us into panic mode. Needless to say I did not return to the vet but have been left feeling totally guilty as my cat continues to throw up food and fur balls. I do not recieve any benefits of any sort so I am left feelng really bad about everything. After reading all the posts about fur balls I am clinging to the hope that this is what is happening to her and will now at least go and buy an uver the counter medicine. At least I will feel that I am doing somthing and not abandoning her as I took her in when I found her very ill in my porch the day that Princess Diana died. At that time I was a single non working parent and her treatment was paid for by the R.S.P.C.A I then agreed to give her a home and she has been a constant friend for the last 15 years

Posted on April 7, 2012

AnnK says: Our cat Rescue homed a kitten, Boot, who was returned to us 9 years later with chronic diarrhoea. He was on steroids to control it. After I'd had him for about 3 years, the diarrhoea became worse, so I put him on the usual chicken/rice diet. I ran out of rice, so I used barley instead. Almost immediately, Boot began vomiting up furballs. This went on for a week, multiple furballs every day. The diarrhoea stopped and has never come back, and he hasn't had steroids since then. He's now 13 years old and looks years younger. I give him furball paste at least once a week now.

Posted on April 7, 2012

AnnK says: Our cat Rescue homed a kitten, Boot, who was returned to us 9 years later with chronic diarrhoea. He was on steroids to control it. After I'd had him for about 3 years, the diarrhoea became worse, so I put him on the usual chicken/rice diet. I ran out of rice, so I used barley instead. Almost immediately, Boot began vomiting up furballs. This went on for a week, multiple furballs every day. The diarrhoea stopped and has never come back, and he hasn't had steroids since then. He's now 13 years old and looks years younger. I give him furball paste at least once a week now.

Posted on May 3, 2011

Jenny says: My cat recently started vomiting alot and barely wanted to eat and kept gulping water constantly but was still dehydrated. We was weak so i rushed him to the animal hospital. he had a huge hairball build up and they even found a hernia. Something he was born with. They removed everything and didn't charge me for the hernia. i just received the call. the surgery was successful. my baby boy so glad. I've had him since he was a tiny baby and he is 6 years old now. it was scary. i have barely eaten in 3 days because I was so scared for him. i knew it had to be a hairball. The first vet that saw him thought it was his asthma/allergies. he received a steroid shot and allergy shot the other day but it kept continuing so i knew something was wrong. I am so glad he is recovering now. My baby will be fine. He kept eating even thought he felt sick after.

Posted on August 14, 2010

Kate says: My cat hacks without throwing anything up. I'd be more nervous, except he eats like a horse!

Posted on August 22, 2010

beck says: jill's cat sound exactlythe same as the problem i am having with my 15 year old tabby, he seems a little better today after i gave him his full dose of tonic lax yesterday, it resulted in diarhea but there were matted fur balls in there too. he did eat on his own for the first time, but only a little. did vet tell you how much tonic lax to use

Posted on August 28, 2010

tom trakes says: If your cat is throwing up due to hair ball get your cat to a vet immediatly.My kitty is in surgery right now .we are waiting for the call.I will let everyone no on the outcome .

Posted on September 3, 2010

beck says: well it's been at least amonth now, but my cat is doing alot better, it seems the heat makes him worse and it has been a very hot summer here. we've filled the tub with an inch or two of cold water and put him in to cool him off and wet him down a little. he isn't 100 percent but he will eat some food on his own and he seems happier

Posted on April 6, 2010

urian bailey says: my cat actually died because the veternarians accidentlity over medicated her and when she died she could barely move or lift up her paw we were devistated when the doctors came in a day before her scheduled appointment (she was jumping around and happy) my mom came in and she could barely move her paw and she saw her diarreha coming out of her butt she died after that. but she was not supposed to die and i dont know what i should do but dont let this happend to you please

Posted on August 12, 2010

jill says:

Posted on October 15, 2009

Amy says: For those who have older cats who are suddenly throwing up constantly it could be Hyperthyroidism. Especially if they are drinking lots of water.

Posted on January 7, 2010

Liz says: Our cat is constantly hacking but nothing is coming out. I did just take him to the vet to have his eye checked out and notified him of the hacking issue and nothing coming out. He said it could be a hair ball. He felt his stomach area and said he didn't feel anything and to try a few things to see if they help. Most of the post on here are about the cats actually throwing up but my cat is hacking and nothing coming out. Any suggestions? Im going to the store tomorrow to see what I can fin and pray that it helps. Luckily he is still eating and drinking.

Posted on October 5, 2009

Emily says: My cat kept throwing up liquid but no hair ball for a few weeks...then one night he got very sick...he threw up about 8 times in one night then it was just mucus...he lost 5 lbs and he was so run down...we took him to the vet and they said that he could have kidney failure because his levels were more than double what they should be...so we thought he was going to pass away...then the next day we took him to the his vet not emergency one and found out he has a blockage because of a hairball...so if ur cat is throwing up but no hairball take them immediately because this was the scariest thing that ever happened n horrible watching my kitty go through it...they said that he should be fine now and it will pass through him...don't mess around and wait...take the cat to the vet right away the sooner the better

Posted on November 12, 2008

Skip Parsons says: 11/12/08 Prolly a bit late.... We took our 2 year old long haired cat "Fluffer" to the vet today after she has not eaten or hardly drank for a week. In her short loveable life, she has had a history of hairballs. After some tests today and finding no diseases, etc, the vet recommended we leave her overnight for xrays. He says; Maybe she has a hairball blockage. Could result in surgery. He advises it's expensive. We're on a fixed income. Tough call.... any advise? Do the "over the counter" products do what they say? Help!. Skip

Posted on December 28, 2008

cindy says: I have a 9yr old male who'd began vomiting a lot. Vet thought it was IBD, we tried different treatment protocols, found out it was small cell lymphoma (after surgery and a biopsy). Is your cat vomiting or regurgitating? There IS a difference and the answer will help determine the correct treatment. Good luck.

Posted on February 23, 2009

Carolyn says: My cat is not eating but does throw up after he does eat. The vet has him on fur ball medicine. He's licking the door frame and is not active around the house. I hate to keep running to the vet with more bills. He's also not drinking water as much. Can you help me?

Posted on April 30, 2009

Yolanda says: The problem is my cat won't let me brush her and I want to prevent these hairballs, but she gets upset and wants to attack the hair brush, so I will try the over the counter medicines, and I will let you know what happens, if she continues to have these hairballs.

Posted on July 23, 2009

Natalie says: My 3.5 year old persian has been throwing up hairballs nearly every morning for the last few weeks. It always happens between 5:30-7:30am, a very specific window of time. He's been to the vet, and all test results came back fine. The Dr. now thinks he may have psychogenic alopecia (obsessive grooming), and that he may be doing this at night when I'm sleeping or during the day when I'm at work. He does have a nervous/skittish disposition, so this may be his way of calming himself. The thing is that he doesn't have much fur though. When I got him from the humane society about a month ago, they said they had shaved him late in December because of matting, but the hair on his back hasn't grown back yet. I'm thinking that his over-grooming is keeping it that way. I started him on a natural hairball gel remedy a couple days ago, but haven't seen any results yet. I also bought him a little tank top to wear at night to prevent him from obsessive licking. I sure hope this helps. I am so tired of cleaning up hairballs and digested food during the wee hours of every morning.

Posted on October 24, 2008

Seattlite says: My cat had fierce hairballs until I got "Petromalt" at the pet store. You just put about an inch of it on the foot and they lick it off. You also need to vacuum regularly, especially if you have long hair. I also keep wheat grass around, which you can buy at the local store.

Posted on October 24, 2008

jackie says: is it ok to give my cat milk?

Posted on October 24, 2008

jackie says: is it ok to give my cat milk?

Posted on September 10, 2008

Stephanie says: I have just started giving my cats a hairball remedy to help them from throwing up hairballs. I have noticed that since I had to change to a different food for cost purposes that they were throwing up more frequently. Besides the fact that it's gross to have to clean up so many hairballs - I knew it wasn't good for them. The nice thing is that the cats think it's a treat!!

Posted on September 16, 2008

Mary Lamberson says: I have tried every hairball treatment on the shelves and nothing works. She was throwing up every day. I switched her to a new canned cat food for hairballs and at first she went 5 days without throwing up. I thought it was solved and then she started again. She does skip a day periodically - about once a week. I plan on keeping her on this for the time being. I brush her every day. I also bought the ferminator which removes more hair. She won't eat food with petroleum jelly in it. Actually she won't eat anything that I try to add. I did try the butter and the oil. She leaves it. I wish I could find the answer.

Posted on September 28, 2008

diane says: My cat had all his blood work and xrays done in the past 3 weeks because he vomits every night and breaths like he is having an asthma attack. It really scares me but doctors could not find out what was wrong, Now they will try prednisone

Posted on October 1, 2008

Happy :) says: My cat is the same way. My groomer recommended me to get this food royal canine #34 i did n she hasnt touched any of it in 4 days. So i am taking it back tomrow. I plan on giving her this Oat Grass and some butter in her food and maybe a little of canned pumpkin for fiber. Pet. Jelly, and oils doesnt do anything for her. Makes her sick.She vomits everything she eats. I am trying more n more each week. I give up!!!!! Tired of cleaning up messes around the house!!!! She is 14 years old looks like a 3 yr old, and has a great dispostion. She drinks like a horse. I dont give her any milk products just water. She does get Collodial Silver liquid in her water. This helps on bacteria in their bodies. I also give her mulitiacidolphilus caplets once a day for stomach problems. HELP!!!! :) Happy

Posted on October 2, 2008

Happy :) says: Ive tried hairball treatment too. I try everything each n every week for my cat. Everything I try she throws up. Pet Jelly, oils dont work. I will try Oat grass and some canned pumpkin. She does get multiacidophilus and collodial silver. Silver in her water for bacteria. Vets said in 1996 that she had feline leukeemia and has been in doors ever since. Remmber she s 14 yr old and actin like a 3 yr now. :) any suggestions

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