It is widely accepted among cat owners that an occasional hairball is just par for the course. However, while all cats groom their fur coats, frequent hairballs definitely (more than about once per month) veer from what is considered normal, and should generate a special inquiry.
What We’re Really Talking About
Cats learn to groom themselves from their mothers, but they aren’t really good at it until they reach adulthood. For this reason, kittens rarely hack up hairballs.
The feline tongue is covered with minute spikes that make easy work of picking up loose/dead hair, dirt, and debris. Since they only face backwards (towards the throat), anything picked up on the tongue is swallowed.
Most of the time, cats come well equipped to handle extra fur in their stomachs. Eventually, whatever collects in the GI tract will make its way out, a fact confirmed by many litter box-cleaning cat owners.
Explaining Cat Hairballs
Cat hairballs can occur for various reasons. Often, cats ingest too much hair and, due to excessive amount swallowed, they simply have a tough time passing it through. Also, it’s not uncommon for cats to eat grass, which acts as an emetic. When they vomit, you might see globs of hair in and around the “ball”.
Tubular, (in a Bad Way)
The shape of the esophagus is long and narrow. When cat hairballs come up, they are pushed through this tubular structure until it rolls off the tongue (and typically on your nicest carpet or furniture).
We encourage cat owners to take a close look at whatever their cat pukes up. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s important to assess how much hair is in the pile. If it has a lot of hair, you can be more certain that it is, indeed, hair that’s irritating the stomach. Less hair, and it is absolutely time to investigate.
Cat hairballs generally occur with increased frequency about 1-2 times a year, coinciding with seasonal shedding seasons (spring and fall). Long-haired cats may have more trouble with frequent hairballs. That being said, cat hairballs should not happen as a matter of routine.
Vomiting can be a symptom of lots of different illnesses, and should not be ignored. Please make an appointment for your cat to be examined and possibly tested for allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, GI obstruction, hyperthyroidism, parasitic infection, heartworm disease, and kidney disease.
The bottom line is that cat hairballs are sort of normal – to a point. However, if your cat throws up more than a couple times per month, throws up without any hair, and is not behaving normally, please let us know.