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Is your senior cat vomiting hairballs? Here’s what to do

Is your senior cat vomiting hairballs? Here’s what to do

As soon as your cat turns seven, she may be considered a senior depending on her species, breed, and the state of her organs. It is common to witness her body undergo physiological changes, including a weaker sense of hearing, lower immunity, and slower digestion. It is also normal for your aging cat (or even younger feline pets) to occasionally vomit white foam, especially when she is trying to get rid of hairballs. In this Waldo’s Friends blog post, we uncover the answers to:   

To all cat parents and foster parents reading this post, remember that this is only a guide meant to help you make the best decision for cats under your care. It should not replace regular visits and/or diagnosis from your veterinarian.

What are hairballs? 

Grooming is a standard part of a cat’s daily routine, with cats spending 15 to 50% of their waking hours licking themselves to stay clean and remain cool. When cats groom themselves, hairballs are formed as the small, backward-facing barbs on their tongue catch dead and loose fur. The fur gets swallowed, passes through the intestinal tract, and usually gets released through the feces without any complication. However, there are instances when the hair stays within the stomach, which forms into what is called a hairball or a furball. 

Hairballs are a common occurrence in longhaired cat breeds, shedding cats, and excessive groomers. As your cat grows older, she also becomes more skilled at cleaning herself, so don’t be surprised to find more hairballs in her poop or vomit. It usually takes a cat about seven to 12 hours to pass fur via her digestive tract, but when it is formed into a hairball, the process can take as long as 24 to 48 hours. 

What happens when a cat tries to vomit a hairball?

Coughing, gagging, and retching are the most common actions you will observe when your cat tries to throw up a hairball. Veterinarian Brian Faulkner explains each symptom, stating that coughing involves clearing the airways by pushing air out of the lungs. Gagging, on the other hand, involves making throat movements to clear a stuck object. Lastly, retching is a noise associated with dry-heaving and vomiting. 

A puked hairball usually appears shortly after your cat manifests the three symptoms. It appears as a long, cylindrical mass of fur since it passed through the narrow passage of your cat’s esophagus. 

What should I do when my senior cat vomits hairballs? 

Keep an eye on your senior cat as she vomits hairballs. If she vomits more hairballs than usual, you may ask your vet to suggest a diet or treatment that can reduce hair build-up. Additionally, observe your senior cat for any feeding and behavioural changes after she vomits the hairball. Check to see that there is no blood, bile, or excessive mucus that accompanies the vomited mass. If you notice your cat gagging for more than 48 hours at a time, licking herself frequently, or having bald spots on her body, schedule a visit with your veterinarian to find out the underlying cause.

For mature and senior cats, hairballs may be a sign of a more serious digestive problem since by nature, they should be able to pass fur and hairballs naturally. Digestive issues commonly associated with hairballs include constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, and pancreatitis. Additionally, hairballs can also be a sign of internal parasites, hernias, foreign bodies, and cancers.

Pain that comes from feline arthritis may also dissuade your cat from pooping, thereby decreasing her visits to the litter box and forcing her body to eliminate hairballs by puking them. Take note of how many times your cat uses her litter tray in a day, as well as her mobility. If she walks stiffly, seems lethargic, and appears reluctant to jump and/or move around, share these observations with your vet.

A hairball may sometimes cause internal blockage, which is life-threatening for cats of all ages. Its symptoms include

  • Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball
  • Frequent coughing
  • Lack of desire to eat or drink water
  • Constipation or having difficulty pooping
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloated, hard abdomen
  • Lethargy

If your senior cat exhibits these signs, set an appointment with your veterinarian immediately. Your vet may prescribe an anti-hairball laxative that can collect the fur in her stomach and let it safely pass through her stool. In more dire situations, surgery may be needed to remove the large hairball stuck in her digestive system. 

How can I prevent my senior cat from having hairballs?

Throwing up hairballs is an unpleasant experience for your cat. Lessen the chances of your senior pet needing to puke fur by following these tips:

  1. Groom your cat’s fur using a metal or rubber comb (for short-haired cats) or a steel slicker brush (for long-haired cats). Grooming gloves are suggested for cats that do not enjoy being brushed. It is recommended to brush the fur of long-haired cats once a day. Meanwhile, short-haired cats can be brushed at least twice a week. Don’t forget to reward her with treats when you’re done grooming her.
  2. After brushing your cat’s fur, run a damp paper towel or a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic baby wipe over your cat’s body. This will help remove loose fur that did not come off with your grooming brush or gloves.
  3. With the guidance of your vet, choose the right kind of food to feed your senior cat. Selecting an anti-hairball dry food high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals will reduce hair loss, improve fur quality, and assist in eliminating excess hair in her gut.
  4. Feed your aging cat larger-sized kibble that they will need to chew longer. As they chew the food, they produce more gastric juices that make the gastrointestinal tract work more efficiently. 
  5. Add fiber to your senior cat’s diet through snacks such as pumpkin, apple, and carrot. Just make sure to limit the amount based on her daily caloric needs. 
  6. Increase your senior cat’s water intake to help improve her digestive system. Encourage your pet to drink more water by getting a water fountain for her to drink from, or feed her canned meals that have higher water content than dry kibble. 
  7. Occasionally feeding your cat a teaspoon of olive oil may help lubricate her digestive tract. Marshmallow root, aloe vera leaf, chamomile flower, licorice root, and ginger root are other botanical gastric lubricants you can try to give her. Place a drop on your cat’s paw or on your finger so she can lick it off. 
  8. Minimise stressors that may cause your senior cat to over groom. Potential stressors include boredom, loneliness, lack of privacy and/or territory, loud noises, changes in environment/routine, unclean litter box, inappropriate handling, and new people or pets. (Learn how to properly introduce a kitten or dog to your cat.)

Discover more ways on how to care for your senior cat through our blog. Find out the possible reasons why she vomits after eating or throws up white foam without eating.

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