Furballs in Cats - All You Need to Know

DrPaul -

Furballs in Cats - All You Need to Know

Most cat owners are familiar with that honking-coughing-gagging sound which announces the delivery of a furball onto the carpet! Yet, whether your cat makes a dramatic delivery or stealthily honks a heap of hair before walking away without a backward glance, furballs are one of those (slimy) habits many cat owners are unsure whether to worry about.


This blog aims to help, and the first thing to know is that coughing up furballs is a common, natural habit for cats. Although we might find it upsetting (and even disgusting) it’s entirely normal and might even indicate that the cat’s on top of its personal grooming …


What Are Furballs?


Furballs (also known as hairballs) are a by-product of a cat's grooming regime. A cat’s rasp-like tongue is made up of tiny spines which act like a comb so every time a cat grooms itself, it’s literally ‘combing’ through its fur. But whilst the spines effectively remove dirt, debris and loose hair as part of the grooming process, those same barbs make it impossible for the cat to spit out excess hair. So fur, along with any other debris which is loosened, is swallowed and heads into the digestive system.


However, cat hair is not digestible and whilst some passes right through the digestive system and out the back end, hair may also build up as ball-like clumps within the digestive tract. Every so often, the cat clears these furballs by vomiting them up and out, with that characteristic coughing, gagging, retching sound.


Although termed ‘balls’ the regurgitated hair we see tends to be slightly elongated, looking like a hairy slimy slug of up to 12cm long and 2.5cm thick. The colour is often similar to your cat's fur, but may well be darker after being amongst food, enzymes and acids in the digestive tract.


Is prevention needed?


Although natural, the arrival of furballs isn’t always pleasant for you or your cat so you might choose to help prevent them building up:


●     A regular grooming regime of brushing your cat can help reduce loose hair. It’s also a great way to bond with your cat; many absolutely love a good grooming session! If you’ve never done this before, start with just a few strokes with a suitable brush, to give your cat time to get used to the new regime - little and often is always a good way to start! Using recommended grooming tools and techniques can make this easier, especially if your cat’s a long-haired breed.

●     Diet and nutrition can also play a role in preventing hairballs. Several cat foods are formulated to minimise hairball formation, by assisting the body to pass the hair through the digestive tract. Your regular vet should be happy to advise about this.

●     Hydration is also important. As with humans, vomiting includes loss of vital fluids, so encouraging your cat to drink more water not only replenishes lost fluids, it can also help with digestion and reduce constipation. Make a note of how often your cat takes a good drink and try to identify - and offer - fresh water sources that may appeal.


Many pet stores sell over-the-counter remedies to support cats struggling with furballs. Options include hairball pastes and gels, to help ‘gather up’ hair in the gut and move it through the digestive tract and comfortably out the other end, or fibre supplements to help reduce constipation.


When Prevention Isn't Enough


Healthy cats usually produce hairballs every so often, but there are some signs which could indicate your cat’s starting to struggle with furballs.


●     When gagging seems frequent (more than every few weeks).

●     When gagging and retching is continual across 24 - 48 hours.

●     If your cat seems to be grooming excessively and / or bald spots may be appearing.

●     If the cat is vomiting fluids such as bile, when bringing up furballs.

●     If your cat hasn’t been using its litter tray or carrying out its usual toilet habits.

●     If your cat appears lethargic and off its food.


In all cases, if your cat seems to be struggling - and definitely if symptoms have been showing for up to 48 hours - it’s time to get your cat checked by a vet.


Complications with fur balls


Fur balls are problematic because, although they're generally not serious in themselves, furball symptoms can easily be confused with - and mask - more serious health conditions.


For instance, it’s very hard to distinguish whether a cat’s coughing to clear its airways or gagging to expel an object. Conditions such as feline asthma include coughing as a symptom, so you can see (and hear) why it can be confusing when trying to identify complications.


Even ‘just’ a fur ball can be a problem for some cats as it’s rare - but not unknown - for furballs to result in an intestinal blockage. Remedies include prescribed medications and possibly surgery, so a trip to the vets is essential. If your cat has ongoing problems with this, the vet may recommend regular prevention through additional medications and remedies.


So, if your cat is struggling - and particularly if it appears to have breathing difficulties - it’s always safer to check with a vet.


Attentive care to reduce that hair


Remember, you’re not necessarily trying to eliminate the habit of hairball honking - it’s entirely natural after all - but you can definitely help your cat cope, prevent issues and identify illness quickly by including hairball-friendly habits into your cat care routines:


●     Build up grooming to a short session daily for long-haired breeds and once or twice weekly for our short-haired friends.

●     Include a bit of monitoring in your daily care - check on food and water intake and toilet habits.

●     Investigate anti-hairball and extra-fibre diets to help the movement of fur through your feline.

●     Make the most of regular veterinary check-ups and ask the vet or vet nurse about recommendations and advice for your cat’s fur ball habits.


If you have any concerns about your cat's health, or would like professional advice on this topic, please seek veterinary care.

Paul Manktelow

Veterinary Surgeon

Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who's worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK's busiest veterinary hospitals. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.