What exactly are hairballs? They're a compact mass of hair that forms in the alimentary canal (especially in the stomach of animals, like cats, that comes from licking fur).

Cats pride themselves as being clean and there are few animals that clean themselves as much and completely as a cat does. Even the paws fall prey to the cat's precise cleaning. This general grooming removes loose hair as well as cleaning the animal.

A cat's tongue has tiny barbs that pull loose hair from it's coat. This hair is then ingested by the cat and in small quantities it will pass through the cat's digestive system with no problems. Sometimes, too much hair is swallowed, making the cat sick. The end result is a cat heaving and making strange wheezing and coughing noises through its nose and throat that can be a bit disconcerting to watch. Within a few minutes, a hairball is coughed up. This is very uncomfortable for the cat, so much that it has to begin cleaning itself again, usually with the same results.

Hairballs may be a symptom of another underlying cause such as dermatitis, which might be caused by a flea allergy for instance, or excessive hair loss that causes the cat to ingest more than the usual amount of hair. If your cat seems to cough up a lot of hairballs, you should probably take her to the vet for a checkup, just to ensure that there is no underlying cause that needs separate treatment.

Hairballs may also be more common in long-haired cats. Special diets to prevent hairballs contain high levels of fiber, which increases the amount of water held in the digestive tract. This helps to keep the swallowed hair soft and moist and so aid in its expulsion but there is potential for creating a problem here.

In many cats, water metabolism is critically balanced. They may not drink much water, for example because they don't like the smell of the chlorine in tap water. They may not go outside to drink if the weather is cold or wet. There is also a growing tendency to keep cats indoors permanently. Increased secretion of water into the gut will lead to a tendency to produce a more concentrated urine and this may predispose to the cat to cystitis or Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD) including formation of urinary calculi) - stones to you!

Another possible cause of excessive hairballs is inflammatory bowel disease. Signs of this are that your cat is also vomiting more frequently without hacking up a hairball or she has intermittent diarrhea or soft stools. Her appetite may be irregular.

Some vets are recommend feeding cats a small amount of grass or cat nip every other day. Grass and cat nip are a rich source of fiber and can help in minimizing formations of hairballs. Wheat, barley, oats or rye type grasses work well. All can be grown indoors for your cat. A few pinches every other day should be enough.

There are also now a number of remedies on the market that help prevent hairballs when introduced into your cat's diet. Others will help your cat gently eliminate existing hairballs.

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