Hairballs (medically known as "trichobezoar") are common problems for cats, rabbits, and ferrets. Trichobezoars are occasionally found in dogs and humans, too. Once assumed "normal" for cats, hairballs, and why they are formed, are now looked at more closely.
Most cats are good groomers. They lick and clean their coats more often than dogs, and in the process, swallow lots of hair. This is especially true for long-haired cats with soft, downy hair. Many cats never have a problem with this ingested hair because it passes right through.
Signs of a Hairball Problem
The first sign of hairball trouble is usually vomiting. Hair is not digestible; it irritates the gastrointestinal tract and vomiting is a good way to get rid of it. If your cat has a hairball problem, you will find cylindrical wet blobs of hair on the carpet or couch (or dried up blobs of hair, if they were deposited and found in an inconspicuous place) that are the vomited hairballs. You may also notice pieces of grass, carpet, or other materials included in the vomited mass.
If the hair doesn't exit the body, it adds up inside your cat's system. Hair usually collects in the stomach, but can also gather in the esophagus or intestine. This is a problem for regular food passage and your cat's general well being.
If your cat has ingested a lot of hair that is not exiting the intestinal tract, you may notice the loss of appetite, coughing, depression, and constipation. In extreme cases, the hairball can grow so large that the stomach ruptures, causing death.
Other Medical Considerations
Grooming hair is just a part of being a cat. But hairballs are something to take seriously. If your pet vomits up hair, ingestion alone is probably not the problem. An examination of your cat may find that Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), hypomotility disorder (slow gut movement), parasites, or a food allergy are possible underlying causes for hairball formations that should be addressed first.
Trichobezoars can grow too big for your cat to be able to vomit up or pass by normal means. If your cat is found to have a trichobezoar (a version of a bezoar because it contains hair) in the stomach or GI tract that is causing an obstruction and other health issues, surgery may be indicated to remove it.
For general hairball prevention, regular grooming is advised using a tool, such as a FURminator designed for pets. If applicable to your cat, haircuts will also reduce hairball formation.
There are many hairball laxatives and hairball diets on the market today that may or may not work. For mild cases, adding pumpkin to your cat's diet may help move the hair through the intestinal tract easier.
How to Add Pumpkin to Your Cat's Diet
Pumpkin has high fiber content and is safe for cats. Some higher-quality wet cat foods contain pumpkin. Or mix plain canned pumpkin into your cat's wet food. Avoid pumpkin pie filling, however.
If your cat has an underlying problem (allergy or motility problem) as mentioned, addressing that issue will be the quickest solution to eliminating or reducing the hairball problem. If your cat struggles with hairballs, talk to your vet about taking a closer look at these possible underlying causes.