Hairballs (medical term: trichobezoar) are common problems for cats, rabbits, 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 - it passes right through.
The First Sign 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 in an inconspicuous place) that are the vomited up hairballs. You may also notice pieces of grass, carpet or other materials included in the mass.
If the hair doesn't exit the body, it adds up. Hair usually collects in the stomach, but can also gather in the esophagus or intestine. This is a problem for regular food passage and general well being.
Later Signs of Problems
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.
Hairballs - A Closer Look
Cats and hairballs go together in people's minds. Just a part of being a cat that grooms hair. But hairballs are a something to take seriously. If your pet vomits up hair, ingestion alone is probably not the problem. An examination of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), hypomotility disorder (slow gut movement), parasites, or food allergy are possible underlying causes for hairball formation should be addressed first.
Trichobezoars can get too big to vomit up or pass by normal means. If your cat (or dog) is found to have a trichobezoar in the stomach or GI tract that is causing an obstruction and other health issues, surgery is indicated to remove it.
For general hairball prevention, regular grooming (I use the FURminator for my dogs and cats). If applicable to your cat or dog, 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.
If your cat has an underlying problem (allergy or motility problem) as mentioned above, addressing that will be the quickest solution to the hairball problem. If your cat struggles with hairballs, talk to your vet about taking a closer look at these possible underlying causes.