When you see your cat coughing up a hairball, your natural instinct is to try and help. No one wants to see their cat in discomfort, but it’s difficult to know how best to intervene in this situation.
Cats groom themselves meticulously, so the occasional hairball is considered quite normal. However, if your cat is coughing up hair regularly, this might indicate a health problem. We’ll show you what to expect when it comes to felines and hairballs.
- 1 Why Do Cats Cough Up Furballs?
- 2 How to Get a Cat to Pass a Hairball
- 3 Are Furballs Dangerous?
- 4 Preventing Hairballs for Good
Why Do Cats Cough Up Furballs?
Cats use their rough-textured tongue 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 stomach.
Over time, this fur may start to clump together in the stomach, forming a trichobezoar (furball or 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 (and humans) do.
According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, “housekeeper contractions” help to sweep indigestible 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 considered normal if they occur less often than once a month. If they occur more frequently than this, this could indicate an underlying issue such as:
- 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 themselves often and could perhaps do with a helping hand
- Your cat’s digestive system is perhaps not as efficient as it could be.
The first issue can be fixed by grooming your cat on a more regular basis.
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 now look at each of those techniques in turn.
1) Do Not Stress
If you see your cat coughing and spluttering, you’re bound to be concerned. Your first instinct is to stroke or comfort your cat. However, it’s best to give them some space.
Your cat will feel vulnerable while coughing up a furball so avoid making any sudden movements or moving too close to them. Instead, make sure they have a clear route to escape if they want to.
More generally, you should try to minimize stress in the household if you want to reduce hairballs. There is lots of evidence to suggest that stress causes diarrhea in cats. Crucially, it is thought that cats with diarrhea are more likely to have problems with hairballs.
This is because when a cat has diarrhea, food passes through the gut too quickly. Because the transit time is so quick, hair will not be pulled through the stomach and into the intestines. Instead, it is more likely to accumulate in the stomach – and be coughed up later.
So, if you want to improve your cat’s digestive health, try to minimize stress in the household, and give them plenty of space if they do start to cough up a furball.
2) Bigger Kibble
As mentioned, it’s better for cats to poop out fur rather than cough it up. But as you might expect, fur is not easily digestible. Nevertheless, 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 kibbles are more likely to poop out the fur, rather than cough it up. Indeed, if you look at specialist kibbles for cats with furball problems, you’ll see that most of them are larger than regular kibbles.
But why do large kibbles help to prevent furballs? Scientists aren’t sure why, but it might be because cats have to chew larger kibbles for longer.
While they are chewing, they are producing more gastric juices – thereby helping the gastrointestinal tract (GI) to function more efficiently. This means the fur is more likely to enter the cat’s intestines and be expelled in their poop.
If you want to try large-sized kibble, there are quite a few different products available. Your cat might be reluctant to chew a larger-sized biscuit so consider mixing their old and new kibble together until they become comfortable with the new product.
3) 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. For example, wild cats would get fiber from the stomach contents of their prey as well as the tendons and ligaments of their prey.
If your cat doesn’t consume much fiber, their gastrointestinal system will be less efficient than other cats’. Studies have shown that added fiber such as cellulose, sugarcane fiber, and beet pulp can help to remove fur balls. This is probably 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 generally only be used in very small amounts.
Beet pulp, on the other hand, 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, because beet pulp is moderately fermentable, 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, on balance, it seems that beet pulp is the most beneficial added fiber for cats, but cellulose and sugarcane fiber may have their place, too. Try to look for fibrous cat food that contains around 3% added fiber. Specialist “furball management” cat foods will often have added fiber but check the label to see if there’s a fermentable fiber like beet pulp inside.
4) Gastric Lubricant
Several years ago, hairball pastes (made from liquid paraffin and malt extract) were popular for treating fur balls. The liquid paraffin essentially acted as a laxative for cats.
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.
Some owners worry whether these botanical lubricants are safe for cats. In general, these products do seem to be safe, but it is important to follow the instructions on the label.
In most cases, the label will advise you to only use this product for a couple of days per week. This is because these lubricants may stop your cat from absorbing all the nutrients from their food, so they are not appropriate for daily use.
As an aside, liquid paraffin should never be administered directly into a cat’s mouth as accidental inhalation can cause pneumonia. Whether you opt for a gastric paste or a gastric lubricant, it’s best to choose a product you can add to your cat’s food (rather than directly into their mouth) as this will help to reduce unnecessary stress.
5) Malty Treats
Malt helps to lubricate the cat’s stomach so fur should pass through the GI tract more efficiently. As mentioned, gastric pastes (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. Also, some vets don’t necessarily agree that liquid paraffin is suitable for cats.
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!
6) 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 throughout the house.
- If your cat is elderly, you may need to bring the water bowl to them.
- Cats enjoy drinking from free-flowing water so consider an indoor fountain.
- Change the water in your cat’s bowl at least once every two days.
7) Feed Little and Often
According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, cats are able to empty their stomachs more effectively when they are provided with small, regular meals (as opposed to larger meals). Cats who 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 (if done sensibly).
- 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 them 4-8 very small meals a day instead of one or two large ones.
Are Furballs Dangerous?
The occasional dangerous is not considered dangerous, especially if your cat is able to cough it up quite quickly and then return to eating/drinking as normal.
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 a period of several hours, but nothing has come up
- Gasping for air
- A sudden bout of sneezing that doesn’t stop
- Nasal discharge
- Swelling anywhere on the body
If you see these signs, you should visit a vet. Your vet may administer medication or – in extreme cases – provide surgery to remove the fur ball. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that most furballs aren’t life-threatening and will pass in time.
How to Manage Chronic Hairballs
Although furballs are rarely life-threatening, this doesn’t mean they are completely “natural” or “normal.” If your cat is regularly coughing up furballs, the tips mentioned in this article might not be particularly helpful.
But how often is too often? According to a recent report, cats who cough up a furball more frequently than once per month should be taken to the vet for an examination.
The report, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, found that 10% of short-haired cats, and 20% of long-haired cats, throw up a hairball once a month (or more).
Cats who cough up furballs on a regular basis may have one of the following conditions:
- Skin Conditions – These can cause the cat to overgroom themselves so lots of hair ends up in the stomach.
- Parasites, Fleas, and Tics – Again, these can cause overgrooming.
- Food Intolerances/ Irritable Bowel Disease – These conditions interfere with digestive health, so the cat may find it hard to process even small amounts of fur.
The most effective way to manage chronic hairballs is to first investigate and treat any underlying health condition. For example, treating irritable bowel disease with a change or diet and/or medication will often eradicate the problem of furballs.
Will Cat Grass Reduce Furballs?
Cats cannot digest grass so, if they eat it, they’ll either vomit it back up or it will pass through their bowels (mostly intact). Some specialists believe that allowing cats to eat grass is extremely beneficial because it helps them to “clean” their stomach. However, others believe that allowing domestic cats to eat grass is actually quite dangerous.
If you’ve been researching furball solutions for your cat, you might have seen pots of “cat grass” for sale. It is thought that, if a cat grazes on this cat grass, this will stop trichobezoars forming in the stomach.
But should cats be encouraged to eat grass? There is controversy surrounding this issue. Some people say it is perfectly safe whereas others say that grass is quite harmful to cats.
Given the lack of clinical evidence to support the benefits of grass, you might be better off trying some of the other interventions first.
If you do decide to provide grass inside the home, choose a product labeled “cat grass” as this will not have been treated with pesticides. Also, monitor your cat’s health and take them for regular checkups with your vet if necessary.
Are You Sure It’s A Hairball?
You shouldn’t assume that every bout of coughing is caused by a hairball. The following issues can be mistaken for furballs:
- Feline Heartworm Disease (FHD) – This lung condition can result in similar symptoms to furballs such as coughing, difficulty breathing, and vomiting. The coughing and spluttering caused by FHD is often more severe than coughing caused by a furball.
- Asthma – Respiratory problems such as asthma can also cause similar symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, spluttering, and lethargy. Vomiting is rarely a side effect of asthma.
- Allergic Reaction – Cats can be allergic to food, household cleaners, medications, etc. These can result in vomiting, coughing, and an increased heart rate.
- Swallowing Something – Cats do sometimes swallow foreign objects, and these can be difficult to dislodge. If your cat is coughing for long periods, but nothing is coming up, this could be a trapped furball or a trapped foreign object.
If you see coughing, spluttering, vomiting or diarrhea, but there is no evidence of any hair (sometimes it can look hard/matted) you should take your cat to the vet immediately.
Preventing Hairballs for Good
We’ve shown you how best to respond to your cat when they’re coughing up a furball. The best thing you can do for your pet is to try and prevent this from happening again.
As mentioned, you should try to reduce the amount of hair that enters your cat’s stomach, and improve your cat’s digestive health:
- Groom your cat daily, especially if they’re an older cat
- Feed your cat large-sized kibbles
- Choose a cat food that contains fermentable fiber (i.e., beet pulp)
- Feed your cat little and often
- Minimize stress in the household
As you can see, a cat’s digestive health is impacted by quite a few different factors so there’s no simple solution to curing furballs. However, if you follow the tips mentioned above, you should see a reduction in hairballs and an improvement in your cat’s general health.