There are chances that your otherwise fastidious cat will do an alarming and somewhat disgusting thing. She will wake up from a peaceful nap, rise up on her paws, retch convulsively for a moment or two, and spit up what may appear, at first glance to be a damp clump. What the animal has disgorged — in the middle of your kitchen floor or, worse yet, in the middle of your prized Persian rug — is a wad of undigested hair that is commonly referred to as a hairball.
Size and appearance
Regurgitated hairballs are variable in size; though usually about an inch long, they can be as long as five inches and an inch thick. The colour is mainly that of the cat’s coat, darkened by the colour of the animal’s food and various gastric secretions, such as green bile. The ejected matter might also have an unpleasant odour.
What leads to hairballs in cats?
Hairballs are the obnoxious by-products of a normal feline habit. As your cat grooms herself, she swallows a lot of loose hair. This happens because the tiny backward-slanted projections (papillae) that roughen the surface of the tongue propel the hair down her throat and into the stomach. Unfortunately, the main structural component of the hair — a tough, insoluble protein substance called keratin — is indigestible.
Signs and symptoms
A cat which is lethargic, refuses to eat for more than a day or two or has had repeated episodes of unproductive retching or vomiting should be examined by a veterinarian without delay. It is possible that the frequent hacking has nothing to do with hairballs – it may instead be a sign of another gastrointestinal problem or a respiratory ailment in which case emergency treatment may be necessary.
Threats due to hairballs
It is not uncommon for a cat to regurgitate a hairball once every week or two. Apart from inconvenience to the pet parent, this is nothing to worry about. However, the wad of matted hair can pose a serious health threat if it grows too large to pass through the narrow sphincters leading either from the esophagus to the stomach or the stomach to the intestinal tract. Also threatening is a hairball that manages to pass into the small intestine and become tightly lodged there. This is uncommon, but it is very serious when it does occur. Without surgical intervention, it can be fatal.
By: Joan Henderson
-Joan Henderson is based in Australia and has judged furry felines in many other countries