The Unexpected Facts about Furballs in Cats

furry cat


Whose Cat Hasn’t Produced a Furball At One Time or Another?

Whilst the majority of hairballs are completely harmless, they have an unexpected aspect. Most people know it’s normal to bring up a hairball occasionally, but it is a sign your cat needs help grooming. But did you also know that hairballs can be a clue the cat is stressed or in pain? Indeed, there is a strong argument to give the humble hairball with more attention than we do.


Why Should I Care about Furballs?

Aside from the inconvenience of clearing up the mess, why should we care about hairballs?

The answer is that they can be a sign your cat has a physical or psychological problem. Whilst it’s no mystery that a long-haired cat will get hairballs from time to time, let’s think more deeply about why else this should happen.

A heavily shedding cat could always do with the help of daily brushing, but what if the cat isn’t shedding excessively but is licking too much? The latter can be a sign of itchy skin or pain causing the cat to lick.  Or the cat is stressed and much like a child sucking a thumb, she licks to comfort herself. Or perhaps the cat has a gut problem which means she isn’t moving hair out in the feces in the normal way.


What Are Hairballs?

But first, let’s go back to basics by considering what a hairball is and how cats get them.

A furball is a collection of hair that builds up in the stomach. As she grooms, hairs become trapped on a cat’s rasp like tongue and swallowed. In the normal course of event these hairs travel through the gut to be passed harmlessly in the cat’s stools.

If the amount of hair is excessive or the cat’s gut isn’t working properly, fur builds up in the stomach and felts together into a ball. This ball rubs the stomach lining, irritating it and causing the cat to vomit. Sometimes the ball gets stuck in the gut with the potential to cause serious illness.


When Hairballs Indicate a Problem

Your cat brings up a hairball. No problem. But when should you worry about the cat having a problem?

 Here are some of the tell-tale signs:

  • Vomiting: Continued vomiting, with or without hair in the vomitus
  • Bald Patches: It is not normal to lick so much a bald patch forms.
  • Broken Hairs: If your cat’s coat feels bristly or stubbly in places, this is a sign the cat has damaged her fur by grooming too much.
  • Frequent Hairballs: How often is too often depends on the length of the cat’s coat. Once a week is borderline, and daily is definitely too much.


What Causes Excessive Grooming?

Over grooming is linked to any number of underlying problems, the most common of which are:

  • Skin Disease: Anything that causes itchiness will trigger heavy grooming, for example
    • Parasites such as fleas, lice, or ear mites.
    • Ringworm infections
    • Allergies
  • Gut Problems: These can physically interfere with the passage of hair through the gut, or else cause stomach ache which triggers over-grooming
    • Parasites such as roundworms or tapeworms
    • Pancreatitis
    • Inflammatory bowel disease
    • Bowel cancer
  • Joint Pain: This is very common and especially linked to arthritis of the joints or spine
  • Bladder Discomfort: An inflamed bladder is very uncomfortable. This can occur because of infection, bladder stones, crystals in the urine, or even stress.


Hairballs and Stress

Many things in life are addictive, including licking for cats. This is because licking causes the release of natural morphine-like substances called endorphins. These give the cat a small natural “high”, helping them to feel good about life. So if a cat is stressed or unhappy, she quickly learns to get relief through licking.

But how can a cat that sleeps all day be stressed?

Stress in cats isn’t about worrying about finding the rent or the daily commute to work, but more about how they perceive their environment. Typical triggers include:

  • Cat-on-Cat Stress: From spotting a stray cat in the garden, to bullying in a multi-cat household, there’s nothing quite like the pressure of living around other felines to make our fur-friends stressed out.
  • Boredom: The indoor cat who is under stimulated may pass the time by licking
  • Frustration: Again, the cat who doesn’t get a chance to display a full range of natural behaviors, such as climbing, hunting, and clawing, must find an outlet for frustration.
  • Fear or Anxiety: A cat out of her comfort zone will lick for comfort.


What should I Do about Hairballs?

Hairballs present both a short and long term problem.

Short Term Relief

If your cat is struggling to bring up a hairball but is otherwise well, you can give her a helping hand. Gentle laxatives such as liquid paraffin in a paste formulation, applied to the paw and licked off, help lubricate the hairball either up or down.

Long Term Relief

You have a number of options:

  • Daily Brushing: Capture shed hair on a comb and rubber brush, so Kitty has less to swallow
  • Hairball Control Diets: These dry kibble formulations contain fiber which grasps onto hair on the stomach and helps it pass harmlessly through.
  • Treat Underlying Health Problems: Speak to your vet about the best way to alleviate your cat’s sore bladder or arthritis. And of course, undertake regular worming and parasite control.
  • Decrease Stress: In a multi-cat household make sure each cat has their own food and water bowl, litter tray, and hiding places. Providing high perches by having a couple of tall cat trees gives the cats a place to stay out of each other’s way. Keep litter trays clean and consider using a self-cleaning litter tray if you’re liable to skip daily poop patrols.
  • Beat Boredom: Prevent frustration by providing multiple cat scratch posts for the cat to vent her need to scratch. Make sure she has plenty of cat toys which you change daily to keep them fresh and interesting. Actively play with your cat at least twice a day.

So there we have it. Hopefully this brush with hairballs has been helpful and next time your cat ‘coughs up’ consider whether you need to do more than clean up the mess.