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Hairballs. Every cat gets them, and every cat owner dreads them. They tend to show up in the most inconvenient places, just waiting to be found by an unsuspecting bare foot. Our cat usually coughs his up into his food dish right after a meal, which has the added effect of ruining his leftovers. So what are hairballs? Are they dangerous? What can be done about them, and can they be prevented?

One great thing about cats is how neat and tidy they are. Cats put a lot of effort into keeping their fur clean. Hairballs are an unfortunate side effect of this. During grooming, cats naturally pick up loose hairs with their tongues, then swallow them. Hair can be difficult to digest, so it gathers in the stomach until the hacking starts. This is more common with adult cats, cats that shed a lot, and long-haired cats. Despite the name, hairballs often look like short tubes, and are generally around the same color as the cat’s coat but a bit darker. You know one is coming when kitty starts to gag and retch, sometimes in very dramatic fashion.

As unpleasant as hairballs are, it’s much better for your cat to cough them up than not. If your cat repeatedly hacks, gags, and acts like she has a hairball, but nothing comes up, this could be a sign the mass has moved from her stomach to her intestines, and this can be very dangerous or even fatal. Call your vet as soon as possible. Other symptoms to look out for include no appetite, lethargy (a kind of exhaustion that goes beyond a cat’s natural tendency to be lazy), and digestive problems. Sometimes blockages require surgery, but often they don’t.

In the moment, there really isn’t much to do about a hairball beyond cleaning it up and making sure your cat is feeling alright. Daily brushing can help reduce the number of hairballs your cat experiences. Brushing also helps to create a bond with your cat, and makes her coat shinier and softer. If your cat has more than one or two hairballs a month, talk to your vet about making some changes to her daily routine. Special treats containing mineral oils can help hair pass through without blocking the intestines. There are also cat foods designed specifically to prevent hairballs; these usually have a combination of mineral oils and extra fiber to help move things along. 

So, to sum up, occasional hairballs are normal and just part of life as a cat owner. If your cat is having trouble hacking them up, or has a lot of hairballs, check with your vet. The solution might be as simple as spending a few minutes brushing your cat. It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and sometimes you get great pictures out of it.

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