A cat may occasionally regurgitate a wad of hair and that is perfectly normal unless it becomes frequent which is a sign that their digestive system is not healthy.
A healthy digestive tract can handle a normal amount of fur, easily passing it along until it is defecated. A build-up of fur which turns into a ball that is not able to move in the intestines means the cat is not producing enough digestive juices from the beneficial bacteria found in the gut.
Cats should get hairballs occasionally, usually less than once a month. This is hair swallowed during grooming that should pass out through the gut without a problem. You should start worrying if the cat is vomiting hairballs every few weeks or consistently for more than 48 hours at a time- this is a sign too much hair is ending up in the gut.
Numerous hairballs are also a sign that the cat is overgrooming. Cats tend to over groom when they are stressed, a bit like how humans bite their fingernails. Before you see the hairballs, you will know a cat is overgrooming if it is licking its fur so much that it causes skin inflammation, sores or hair loss.
How do you help a cat with hairballs? If you see them gagging as they try to vomit out the hair, the best thing you can do is give them space. It is normal for them to gag several times before being able to vomit the hairball. You can help digestion by getting them food rich in fibre which will help take excess fur through the digestive system.
Hairballs are harmless. However, if you see the cat moving around the house and repeatedly retching with no sign of a hairball, and if they seem like they have lost energy and are not eating, take them to the vet. It could be a sign that the hairball has moved from the stomach to the intestines. Apart from the prolonged retching without producing hairballs and lethargy, look out for constipation or diarrhoea, excess nibbling on grass or a swollen and sensitive stomach.
There is no way to completely stop hairballs from forming but things like proper grooming to get rid of excess fur can help and so is giving them fibre-rich cat food- look at the components of the food when buying at the store. If the cat is fussy when getting groomed, try getting a professional groomer.
Maryanne is a cat owner. [email protected]