Furballs in cats

Most cat owners will have seen their cat produce a furball at some time. Although this can appear rather distressing it is a normal event for a significant number of cats so it’s nothing to get unduly concerned about.

Wild cats need different coat densities according to the seasons of the year. In the summer they need a light coat while in the colder months it needs to be thicker and more insulating. As the new coat grows the old coat is lost by moulting. Most pet cats have the luxury of central heating and constant all year round temperatures and this has resulted in almost continuous moulting.

The cat’s instinct is to care for its coat by grooming. Cats have a tongue like a rasp and when they groom loose hair is dislodged and swallowed. In most cats the hair passes through the digestive tract in small amounts and causes no problems. In others, the hair remains in the stomach and gradually accumulates to form a furball. Long-haired cats can be problem. They are much more prone to developing tangles and knots in their fur which tend to tug and put the cat off being groomed. A long-haired kitten may look very cute but the coat will need a lot of time and attention.

The furball (or trichobezoar as it is officially called) rarely causes any problems. As it grows it will eventually be eliminated from the stomach. Sometimes this will mean it travels down the gut and is expelled with the faeces. Often the furball is vomited up it mixed with food or stomach contents but, in many cases, it appears as a clump of soggy hair.

Sometimes attempts to vomit furballs are initially unsuccessful, and only fluid or partially digested food is produced. Affected cats tend to keep vomiting until the furball is finally produced and once the furball has been eliminated the cat usually immediately bounces back to normal.

In very severe cases furballs can cause an obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract. Fortunately this complication is very rare, because if it does occur the furball has to be surgically removed. A common misconception is that furballs cause coughing. Some confusion may be derived from the fact that a coughing cat looks very similar to a retching cat.

Although furballs are frequently observed in normal cats, they can be associated with ill health. Irritable skin or psychological disorders can cause a cat to overgroom and take in excessive quantities of hair. In cats with a disease of the gastrointestinal tract which causes an obstruction or a motility problem hairballs may cause frequent blockages.

You should come to recognise what is normal for your cat and if there is any change in the pattern of furball production, or it is associated with weight loss, diarrhoea or a picky appetite, you must consult your vet for advice.

Laxatives lubricate furballs and allow them to progress along the digestive tract. Flavoured petroleum-based laxative gels are favoured for furball treatment and prevention and they tend to be easier to administer. The required dosage will vary according to the individual cat. Some need treatment every few days while others need help only at times of heavy moulting. If your cat still appears to have a problem eliminating a furball, your vet may prescribe drugs which enhance gut motility. Persistent or frequently recurring furballs are likely to need further investigation.

A number of steps can be taken to help prevent furballs. One of the most important is frequent grooming which significantly decreases the amount of loose hair your cat will swallow. If you introduce grooming as part of a kitten’s daily routine it tends to accept the process. Many older cats love being groomed but others will put you in your place if you dare to impose this strange ritual on them.

A popular grooming tool, particularly for shorthaired cats, is a rubber brush. It is soft enough not to cause any discomfort (in fact, it’s a bit like using a massage mitt) but it can shift almost frightening amounts of loose hair. It’s not only great for the cat but it works wonders for removing cat hair from carpets and furniture as well.

There is a range of dry foods which are designed to help reduce the formation of furballs in the gut. These foods contain a high level of a particular type of vegetable fibre which helps to “sweep” the fur along the intestines in the right direction.