7 Facts About Hairballs

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April 26 is National Hairball Awareness Day. To celebrate, we've hacked up a few facts about everyone's least favorite cat treat.

1. It's hairballs. Trichobezoars, if you're nasty.

A hairball by any other name is still gross. In this case, the scientific term is trichobezoar. The root, trich, is Greek for "hair." A bezoar is any mass found in the stomach or intestines. It comes from the Persian word for "antidote." 

Animal hairballs were once thought to cure epilepsy, the plague, and poisoning. (But alas, have never been aphrodisiacs.) During the Middle Ages, hairballs were even set in gold. In 2011, jewelry designer Heidi Abrahamson created cat hair jewelry for Modern Cat founder Kate Benjamin to celebrate National Hairball Awareness Day. The hair for these accessories was shed, not vomited, but it still pulls off that "Is this art, or is it gross?" look.

2. Some cats are hairball-ier than others.

When they're not eating, sleeping, or starring in Internet videos, cats like to groom. A lot. Hairballs happen when indigestible hair is swallowed and builds up in the stomach. In a healthy cat, hair passes through the digestive tract just fine and reappears later in the litter box. But sometimes the hair forms a mass that has to be regurgitated. Thanks to the esophagus, hairballs usually look like tubes of hair, not balls.

All cats groom, but not all cats get hairballs. Obviously, long-haired cats have more hair to swallow, so they're more likely to have a hack attack. Kittens don't really get hairballs, either. In addition to having less fur, they don't groom themselves as thoroughly. So which of your cats is responsible for that mysterious hairball on your bedroom floor? Blame the older, more fastidious one.

Or your pet lion. Lion hairballs are especially furr-ocious.

3. Hairballs are seasonal.

Flowers in bloom, chirping birds, retching cats—they're all signs of spring. Hairballs are especially common as cats shed their winter coats.

4. Healthy cats have one to two hairballs ... a year.

"The bottom line about hairballs is they are not normal," says Dr. Jane Brunt, a feline veterinarian and executive director of the CATalyst Council. "The cat has developed a digestive tract that can handle normal amounts of fur without a problem. Even long-haired cats should not develop more than one or two hairballs a year.”

And don't assume all cat coughing or vomiting can be blamed on hairballs. It could be a sign of another medical issue, like an allergy or skin or intestinal disorder.

5. Hairballs today, gone tomorrow.

More than two hairballs a year is cause for concern. But don't worry: There are a number of remedies out there. Many hairball-fighting cat treats contain flavored indigestible mineral oil or petroleum jelly, which keeps everything lubricated. Some cat owners skip the fancy stuff and just put Vaseline on their kitty's nose, so he or she will lick it off. Switching to a high-fiber cat food is also helpful. You can do it yourself by feeding your cat canned pumpkin.

But food's not everything. Brushing your cat or seeking professional grooming help also makes a big difference. Dr. Brunt suggests using brushing as a reward. “It has two positive outcomes," she says. “First, your cat will have a lovely coat when properly brushed, and second, you may prevent your cat from becoming overweight if you are using brushing as a reward rather than treats.”If you're really feeling ambitious, you can even try this...

6. Where there's a mammal, there's hair. And where there's hair, there's hairballs.

Hairballs aren't just for cats. Cows and rabbits are especially prone to them, but their bodies aren't designed to vomit them up. They often go undiscovered until an animal's untimely death. Talk about a bad hair day.

Humans also get hairballs. People with trichotillomania, the compulsion to pull out their hair, sometimes experience trichophagia, the compulsion to eat hair. Trichobezoars can cause severe stomach pain. Sometimes hairballs grow so big over the years that they extend beyond the stomach into the colon, a rare intestinal condition called Rapunzel Syndrome. Trust us, it's one fairytale no one wants to comes true.

7. These hairballs are nothing to cough at.

If a hairball gets too big, it may require surgical removal. In January 2012, a British cat named Gemma went under the knife when a tumor the "size of two cricket balls" prevented her from eating. But it wasn't a tumor. (Please read that in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.) It was a five-inch wide hairball that weighed 7.5 ounces and, incidentally, looked like a newborn puppy.