What is a hairball?

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A hairball is a small collection of hair or fur formed in the stomach of animals that is occasionally vomited up when it becomes too big. They are mostly little cylinders (like cigars) of packed hair, but they can include bits of other things like food. Many animals, and even humans, are susceptible to it, but it’s most associated with cats.

Most cat owners are pretty familiar with them, but if you’re a new cat parent, know primary symptoms of hairballs: periodic hacking, gagging and vomiting. Hairballs may also cause decreased appetite and constipation. You might see accumulated hair in the vomited material. However, sometimes a hairball can cause an upset stomach and the cat will bring up just food or mucus.

A lot of people wonder how cats get them. Well, their tongues have little projections like a serrated knife. When they groom themselves and lick, the fur gets captured by those edges. The cat can’t spit out the fur so she swallows it and little-by-little the fur builds up; it can’t pass efficiently through the GI tract so she’ll force herself to vomit to get rid of it.

The long-haired cats are particularly plagued by them, but that’s just because of the amount of hair they have as opposed to the short-haired cats. So, unless you have one of those hairless breeds, chances are you’ll be dealing with a hairball sooner or later.

While hairballs are disgusting to humans, for the most part, they don’t hurt the cat. There is one exception, however: Sometimes the hairball is just too big to go through the GI tract efficiently. When that happens your cat could start developing symptoms of a stomach or intestinal blockage; symptoms usually include hacking for more than twenty-four hours, lack of appetite and/or lack of body eliminations. By this time, surgery is the only option to unblock this hulking hairball. If you think that’s the case, a visit to the vet right away is warranted.

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