The first time you see your cat hurl a hairball, you might be pretty worried. He'll retch and hack and try to bring it up. Then it will be there – on your rug or some other conspicuous spot – in all its undigested glory.
Your cat may look distressed during all of this, but it's really nothing serious. A hairball, or trichobezoar, is just what the name says it is: a wad of undigested wet hair within the digestive tract. Generally, trichobezoars are not ball-shaped; they are sausage-shaped and are formed when the cat swallows too much hair after grooming.
As the cat licks his fur, dead hair comes loose. Because the cat's tongue has a rough surface made up of backward-slanting papillae, most of the hair cannot be dislodged, and the cat cannot spit it out. So he swallows it. Most of the hair goes through the digestive tract with no problem and is excreted in the feces; however, sometimes too much hair is ingested and the wad can't pass through properly. Instead, it accumulates in the stomach and forms a wadded mass.
Most cats suffer from occasional hairballs, some more than others. Long-haired cats tend to swallow more hair simply because they have more of it, but shorthair breeds get hairballs, too.
If the hairball is not regurgitated, it may create a blockage in the stomach or small intestine. If not treated, intestinal blockages create serious and even life-threatening problems for the cat. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the blockage. If you suspect your cat is having trouble passing a hairball, you need to consult your local veterinarian, especially if retching continues for more than a day, if your cat is constipated, or starts refusing its food.
What Can You Do?
Ask a cat owner what he would prefer: a cure for the common cold or a cure for hairballs, and the answer would likely be a cure for hairballs. But there is no cure. However, there are some things that you can do to minimize the rate of regurgitation: