Hairballs (Trichobezoar) This article is verified by a vet

Veterinary-verified content
Written by Franziska Gütgemann, vet

Hairballs are usually not dangerous. We will explain how they come about and in which rare cases they can be dangerous for your cat.

How do hairballs come about in cats?

Hairballs are particularly common with cats, unlike with dogs. This is because our cats clean their fur very thoroughly. The rough tongue of cats removes loose hairs from their coat, which they then swallow. If they swallow a lot of hairs at once, hairballs form in the stomach.

Often no exact cause can be found as to why these hairballs form. However, cases accumulate during the moulting period (in the spring months) or with cat breeds with long fur.

Sometimes cats also swallow more hairs due to a lack of raw fibre in their food. Hairballs can occasionally also come about as part of other underlying diseases (such as hyperthyroidism), because one area they affect is the cat's coat.

How can I prevent hairballs?

In order to prevent the formation of hairballs with your cat, you should make sure it gets a balanced diet with sufficient raw fibre. In addition, you can remove loose hair during the moulting phase by regularly brushing your cat. As a result, your cat will swallow less hair when it grooms itself.

cat hairs in hand

How do I recognise trichobezoars in cats?

As soon as you establish that your cat is consuming less food and water, shows a clearly weakened general condition or experiences pain when its stomach is touched, you should see a vet immediately. It is also advisable to inform the vet of your imminent visit over the phone beforehand so that they can prepare everything required for an emergency.

In order to diagnose an acute change in the position of the cat's gastrointestinal tract due to hairballs, the vet touches the stomach area during measures to stabilise circulation. If the cat shows signs of pain and its abdominal wall is very tense, this indicates that something is happening in the stomach area.

A change in the position of the gastrointestinal tract includes in particular:

  • Gastric torsion (Torsio ventriculi) with bloating (tympany)
  • A complete or incomplete intestinal obstruction (ileus)

Imaging procedures like X-rays allow the vet to take a closer look at the stomach cavity organs. Administering contrast agents can also rule out intestinal obstruction.

Often blood is taken from cats if a trichobezoar is suspected, because an increased lactose value, for instance, is a sign of a change in position of the gastrointestinal tract.

Treating hairballs

Treatment of hairballs is based on their size and location. The choice is between conservative and surgical treatment:

  • Conservative: If a foreign body is found in the stomach during diagnosis, an oesophagal tube can release built-up gas from the stomach. If an X-ray examination proves that a small hairball is present, it can be treated without surgery and by administering oral lubricants (e.g. paraffin oil) or laxatives (e.g. metoclopramide).
  • Surgical: Overly large hairballs have to be removed via surgery. Such operations should then be carried out as quickly as possible.

Conclusion

Most hairballs are removed from the stomach by choking or regurgitation without any incident. If this is no longer possible due to the size of the cat's trichobezoar, you should visit a vet in good time to prevent it from getting worse.

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