The accumulation of hair within the stomach is the most common cause of vomiting in cats. Because of their self-grooming habits and the roughened nature of their tongues, cats are prone to hairballs.
Incidence of this problem increases during the spring and fall months because of increased shedding. When the hair is swallowed, it can coalesce into a ball within the stomach and act as a gastric foreign body, irritating the stomach lining.
Vomiting, often right after eating, and gagging are usually the result when this happens; coughing might also be noticed. Aside from these signs, those cats affected seem otherwise clinically normal.
Diagnosis of hairballs is based on clinical signs (and the absence of other clinical signs) and physical examination.
If the vomiting is continuous or severe, radiographs of the stomach or direct endoscopic examination might be required to rule out other gastric foreign bodies common to cats, such as cloth, strings, and plastic wrap.
Another way to make a diagnosis of hairballs is to monitor response to treatment. There are numerous “cat laxatives” on the market that can be given to a cat suspected of harboring hairballs.
These agents, most of which are merely flavored petroleum jelly, act to lubricate the hairball and facilitate its passage out of the stomach and into the stool. Once this occurs, the clinical signs seen should abate.
In severe instances, surgical removal of a prominent hairball might even be required to afford a cure. Pet owners can do their part to prevent hairballs in their cats. Giving a laxative in a preventive manner once or twice weekly should help keep things moving smoothly through the gastrointestinal tract.
One word of caution: Mineral oil should never be used as a hairball laxative, primarily because this substance can be easily aspirated into the lungs. In addition to giving hairball laxative periodically, brushing a cat’s haircoat on a daily basis will help reduce the amount of hair available for ingestion.