Cat hacking up a hairball

Q. My cat repeatedly hacks up hairballs. Is this cause for concern?

A. For most cats, especially the longhaired variety, a hairball every now and then is normal, and there's no need for alarm.

When your cat grooms himself — and sometimes other pets in the household — his barbed tongue pulls out loose hair, which is eventually swallowed. The fur can then collect in the stomach or intestine, forming a hairball. It will typically pass through the digestive tract without incident, but your cat may periodically hack up the telltale “hair cigar.”

You should be concerned, however, if your cat goes through the motions of hacking up a hairball, without anything to show for it. Repeated, unproductive gagging and retching may be a sign that a hairball is too large to pass into the intestines, can’t be spit up or has formed an obstruction in the digestive tract.

Cats with obstructions may vomit clear or yellowish stomach fluids or bring up undigested food several hours after eating. They can also have diarrhea, refuse to eat and become lethargic. If your cat shows any of these signs, have your veterinarian examine him. Diagnostic testing may be recommended, and if an obstruction is confirmed, the hairball may need to be removed surgically.

If you’re finding more hairballs than usual — more than two to three a week — it may be a sign that your cat is grooming excessively, which can result from underlying skin conditions, parasites or behavioral conditions. You should consult with your veterinarian if you notice an uptick in hairballs.

The best way to avoid hairballs is to brush your cat regularly. You can also ask your veterinarian about special hairball diets, as well as oral hairball remedies that can help propel hair through the digestive tract, so it ends up in a litterbox — instead of on your carpet.