When you see your cat coughing up a hairball, your natural instinct is to help in some way. No one wants to see their cat in discomfort, but it can be difficult to know how best to intervene in this situation.
If your cat is coughing up a furball, it needs peace, quiet, and water. In the long term, you should encourage your cat to poop out the fur rather than cough it up. Cats that eat fermentable fiber (like beet pulp) and larger-sized kibble find it easier to excrete fur.
Cats groom themselves meticulously, so the occasional hairball is perfectly normal. However, if your cat is coughing up hair regularly, this may indicate that your cat has a skin condition, irritable bowel, or parasites.
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Why Do Cats Cough Up Furballs?
A study by the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that 10% of short-haired cats and 20% of long-haired cats, threw up a hairball once a month.
Cats use their rough-textured tongues to dislodge dirt and remove hairs that are in the resting phase. This makes way for healthy new hair growth. Cats spend 25% of their waking lives grooming themselves, so it’s no surprise that some of this dirt and fur ends up in their stomachs.
Over time, this fur may start to clump together in the stomach, forming a trichobezoar (hairball). Once the fur has begun to form a clump, it becomes difficult to poop out, so the cat is more likely to vomit it up.
One of the reasons cats cough up furballs is because they do not have the same amount of “housekeeper contractions” that some other animals do. These help to sweep undigestible matter through the stomach and out through the bowels.
Cats do have these contractions, but not to the same degree as other species. Some of the hair will be pulled through the intestines, but some will clump together in the cat’s stomach, and will probably need to be coughed up.
Are Hairballs in Cats Normal?
Hairballs are normal if they occur less often than once a month. If they occur more frequently, this could be a sign or symptom of:
- Skin and Fur Conditions
- Food Intolerances
For the most part, the occasional furball does not indicate a serious underlying illness. Rather, the occasional hairball indicates that:
- Your cat is grooming itself often and needs assistance
- Your cat’s digestive system is inefficient
How to Get a Cat to Pass a Hairball
There are ways you can improve your cat’s digestive health and make furballs easier to pass. We’ll look at each of these methods.
Do Not Stress
Your cat will feel vulnerable while coughing up a furball. Avoid making any sudden movements or moving too close to your cat.
Try to minimize stress in the household if you want to reduce hairballs. There is evidence to suggest that stress causes diarrhea. Cats with diarrhea are significantly more likely to have problems with hairballs.
This is because food passes through the gut too fast. Because the transit time is so quick, the hair will not be pulled through the stomach and into the intestines. Instead, it accumulates in the stomach and is coughed up later.
Cat fur is not easily digestible. So, you might be able to help your cat process the fur quicker if you feed them a specific diet.
According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, cats who eat larger-sized kibble are more likely to poop out the fur than cough it up.
If you look at specialist kibble for cats with furball problems, almost all of them are larger than regular kibble. But why do large kibbles prevent furballs? Well, cats have to chew larger kibbles for much longer.
While they are chewing, they are producing more gastric juices, thereby helping the gastrointestinal tract (GI) to function more efficiently. The fur is more likely to enter the cat’s intestines and be expelled in its poop.
Your cat might be reluctant to chew a larger-sized biscuit, so consider mixing its old and new kibble together until your cat feels comfortable.
Cat Food with Fermentable Fiber
Cats who get regular furballs may be lacking fiber in their diet. Although cats do not need lots of fiber, they do need small amounts to stay healthy. Feral cats get fiber from the stomach contents, as well as the tendons and ligaments, of their prey.
If your cat doesn’t consume much fiber, its gastrointestinal system will be less efficient than other cats.
According to the Journal of Nutritional Science, added fiber such as cellulose, sugarcane fiber, and beet pulp can help to remove fur balls.
This is because the fiber pulls the hair through the gut and intestines and helps it to become excreted more quickly.
There are some slight differences between cellulose, sugarcane, and beet pulp. Cellulose is not very fermentable. This means it travels through the GI tract quite quickly. It can be helpful for ‘pushing through’ fur, but it can also cause loose stools in some cats. That’s why cellulose should only be consumed in small amounts.
Beet pulp is moderately fermentable, so it passes through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract at a reasonable pace. This type of fiber rarely causes any unwanted side effects such as loose stools, gas, or bloating.
Also, this means it has some added nutritional benefits that cellulose and sugarcane do not. To be specific, beet pulp is easily broken down in the intestines. Once broken down, the short-chain fatty acids help to support the health of the intestines.
So, beet pulp is the most beneficial added fiber for cats, but cellulose and sugarcane fiber may have their place, too. Look for fibrous cat food that contains around 3% added fiber. Specialist “furball management” cat foods will often have added fiber.
Hairball pastes (made from liquid paraffin and malt extract) were popular for treating fur balls. The liquid paraffin acted as a laxative for cats. Of course, this should never be given to your cat as a treatment.
More recently, manufacturers have started to use alternative botanical ingredients that may be kinder on the GI tract. These gastric lubricants contain some or all of the following ingredients:
- Marshmallow Root
- Aloe Vera Leaf
- Chamomile Flower
- Licorice Root
- Ginger Root
These botanicals all aid digestion and support normal bowel movements. Unlike the old-style gastric pastes, gastric lubricants are not usually administered directly into the cat’s mouth. Instead, you would add the liquid to your cat’s meal or place a drop on their paw for them to lick off.
Malt lubricates the cat’s stomach so fur should pass through the GI tract more efficiently. Gastric pastes that are made from malt extract and liquid paraffin have been quite popular for treating fur balls. These can be effective but are not always easy to administer.
If you want to enjoy the benefits of malt extract, try offering your cat a malty kibble-style treat, instead. Look out for malty treats formulated specifically for furball management.
Unlike the gastric pastes, these products usually do not contain liquid paraffin. Instead, they are made of malt extract, oils, and fats to help lubricate the cat’s stomach. The flavor of malt is extremely tasty for cats so they should accept these treats willingly.
Provide Fresh Water
It might sound obvious, but providing your cat with enough water is crucial. Dehydration can lead to irregular bowel movements or digestive issues. To ensure your cat is getting enough water:
- Place 2-3 bowls of water in different rooms around the house
- If your cat is elderly, you may need to bring the water bowl to it
- Cats enjoy drinking free-flowing water, so get an indoor fountain
- Change the water in your cat’s bowl at least once every two days
Feed Little and Often
Cats are able to empty their stomachs more effectively when they are provided with small, regular meals. Cats that are fed smaller meals are able to sweep more fur through the stomach and into the intestines.
In fact, there is evidence that feeding your cat little and often is very good for their overall health. This is because:
- It mimics their natural tendency to catch regular meals/graze on food
- It can help with weight management
- It provides the cat with a steady source of energy
- It may improve their behavior/ reduce stress levels
So, if you want to improve your cat’s digestive health, and minimize the frequency of furballs, try feeding her 4-8 very small meals a day instead of one or two large ones.
Are Furballs Dangerous?
Very occasionally, furballs can become lodged in the esophagus, stomach, or intestine. These situations can be life-threatening if your cat doesn’t receive immediate treatment. The following symptoms may indicate a blockage:
- Your cat has been trying to cough up a furball over several hours without any success
- Gasping for air
- A sudden bout of sneezing that doesn’t stop
- Nasal discharge
- Swelling anywhere on the body.
The occasional hairball is safe, especially if your cat is able to cough it up quickly and then return to eating/drinking as normal. Following the above tips should result in a reduction in hairballs experienced by cats.