Yes, you read the title correctly: HAIRBALL Awareness Day is April 30th. It seems like there's a day for everything! So, what do we need to know about hairballs that we don't already know? They're balls of hair that cats yack up when they ingest hair from their grooming rituals, right? Doctors McKinney and Figarra informed me that there's a little more to it than that. Hairballs or trichobezoar (if you want to get technical) form from the hair that doesn't pass from the stomach and into the rest of the digestive tract, where it would continue on out of the body. Often hairballs don't cause anything more than an annoyance when we step on them and have to clean them up... but sometimes, they can become a concern.
From a veterinary perspective, occasional hairballs aren't too concerning. However, there are a few cases when frequent vomiting of hairballs in particular (as opposed to just frequent vomiting), can signal more serious disease and a recommendation for additional diagnostics or the need for intervention:
- Frequent vomiting for any reason is uncomfortable, potentially exposing the esophagus to stomach acids and injury, and abdominal organs to some degree of trauma from the force of vomiting. Vomiting also increases the risk for aspiration of fluid and food, pneumonia, and lung injury as well as dehydration.
- Long-haired kitties who frequently vomit hairballs may need help with grooming.
- Frequent hairballs can indicate increased grooming behavior which can be associated with skin disease, allergies, stress, injury or pain.
- Frequent hairballs can signal accumulation of hair in the stomach, and abnormal or incomplete emptying of the stomach which could be associated with an obstruction or an early indication of poor GI motility.
- In some cases, hairballs themselves can actually be too large to vomit and act as obstructions, preventing food and fluid from leaving the stomach properly and resulting in a very sick kitty requiring surgery.