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Every cat owner is well familiar with the 'horking' sound that their cat makes every week or two that results in a compact hair sausage being deposited on the floor. Owners generally become fairly blase after cleaning up a few hairballs, but you should also be aware of how they form, how to prevent them from developing as frequently, and the complications that can arise.

Unlike most dogs who will take a lick of two at their paws and consider that they have groomed enough, cats are grooming dynamos. Even tiny kittens will start grooming at a very early age and this continues throughout the life of the cat.

The tongue of a cat is covered with little hooks which easily pick up dead and loose hairs when the cat licks herself. Cats spend a considerable amount of time during the day cleaning, so the opportunity of collecting hair is great. The hair that is taken up by the tongue is inevitably swallowed and enters the digestive system. The greater portion of the swallowed hair passes harmlessly through the stomach and intestines and is deposited in the litter box. However, some always remains and will develop into a hairball in time.

Other than being disgusting, most hairballs cause no problems at all for your cat. Unfortunately, sometimes a hairball blockage can occur in the stomach or intestines – at times a mega-hairball will form in the stomach that takes up the entire space of the organ. There are clues that will tell you that your friend may be having problems with a hairball:

  • You cat may become constipated – normal passage of stool will be prevented by the hairballs.
  • Conversely, your cat may have diarrhea as the intestinal irritation from the hairballs causes food to pass too quickly through the system.
  • Cats with blockage have no energy and will simply lie around.
  • If your cat attempts to vomit (dry heaves), but is unable to bring anything up, the hairball may be too large to expel in the normal way.
  • Appetite will fall off dramatically when blockage occurs.
  • A large hairball can press against the lungs, causing the cat to wheeze and cough.

At this point, you will have to consult your vet to have him or her resolve the hairball problem. The first step will be palpation of the cat's abdomen, followed by an x-ray. If a large hairball is present anywhere in the gastrointestinal system, surgery must be done to remove it. This can be very expensive so owners should make every effort to prevent hairballs from forming in the first place.

It would be completely unrealistic to suppose that you can prevent your cat from swallowing hair at all, but there are some things that you can do to help keep hairball problems at a minimum.

Brush your cat. Not surprisingly, long haired cats are much more likely to develop problem hairballs than short haired ones. However, a daily brushing of your cat will help remove most of the loose hairs before they do begin to form a ball. Starting this when your cat is young is a good idea not only to help prevent hairballs, but also to provide a nice time for you and your cat to interact together. After the brushing session is complete, run a damp cloth over the fur to pick up any stray hairs. Brushing will be very important if your cat undergoes an annual shedding.

Some cats are more dedicated to grooming than others, and these super-groomers are more likely to develop hairball problems. You can help to keep the cat's tongue in his or her mouth by providing a new toy or two and by playing with the cat – both of you will probably have a great time.

Oral lubricants are available at pet supply stores or through your vet. These help keep matter moving through the digestive tract more quickly and getting the hair out of the system will prevent the formation of hairballs.

Fiber rich cat foods have been found to be valuable at preventing hairballs. As with any new food, however, introduce it slowly to prevent any stomach upsets.

Cats can pick up human hair from the floor when they groom, and this can be a problem especially if the humans in the house have long hair – it will go down right along with the cat hair. Regular vacuuming can help keep these hairs out of your cat's insides.

And lastly, don't let your cat become obese; fat cats are more likely to be constipated, which slows down the normal passage of matter through the intestines and contributing to hairball accretion.

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