Any cat can be affected by hairballs; but it is more commonly a problem associated with long-haired felines. Cats are fastidious groomers, and they swallow hair as they clean themselves.
Hair is not well digested by the body. Some of it passes through the gastrointestinal system mixed in as part of the waste material. If large quantities of hair are consumed, it may sit in the stomach for weeks forming large clumps. This hair is irritating to the lining of the stomach, and can then trigger vomiting. This is what is classically known as a hairball, a hard and slimy congealed coil of hair and mucus. Fur can also accumulate throughout the intestine, leading to blockages and/or constipation further down in the gastrointestinal tract.
Typical symptoms of hairballs include a gagging/coughing that results in one or more hard congealed tufts of fur being expelled. In severe cases patients can have repeated vomiting with or without spitting up any hair, decreased appetite, bloating, abdominal pain, and/or lethargy. If left untreated, life threatening blockages can occur. At this stage, medical intervention such as gastric lavage, endoscopy, and/or surgery may be required. These patients would also need several days of hospitalization, intravenous fluids, and possibly other treatments.
It is better to prevent this problem before it becomes a serious health concern for your feline. There are a wide variety of helpful techniques to utilize ranging from grooming, to diets, and treats.
Frequent coat brushing and combing can help to drastically decrease the overall amount of hair ingested by your cat. I suggest to do this for your cherished companion at least 2-3 times a week. Many feline caregivers like to have their long-haired cats shaved a few times per year to decrease hair consumption.
Evaluate the overall health of your felines coat and skin often. Make sure you are providing adequate flea control for your pet. In addition to other health problems, fleas can lead to over grooming and increased hair consumption. Skin infections can also trigger increased grooming. Stress is another reason that cats may clean themselves too often. Make sure your cherished companion receives veterinary care at the first sign of any skin malady.
Dietary assistance comes in many forms. Multiple commercial kibble diets are available to help the extra hair travel through the intestine more easily. Several cat treats exist that promote hair passage by providing fiber. Lubricant products like Laxatone or Petromalt have been around for several years. They work well, but can be difficult and messy to administer. Vaseline is also often used in the same manner at 1/2 teaspoon 1-3 times a week. Oral laxatives in a pill or capsule formulation can also provide some benefit; your veterinarian can supply these. Canned pumpkin or baby food squash are also options that can be given at a teaspoon dosage 1-3 times a week; but most felines won't consume these very easily. I do not recommend giving mineral oil, as it can result in other health issues if given improperly.
Promote water consumption for your feline, as water can aid in the passage of hair. Many felines like to drink from running water. Small fountains are available at pet supply stores and on line.
Frequently, a life-long effort is required to control hairballs in your feline, especially in the long-haired varieties. Typically the problem is never eliminated; but delicately balanced using the above mentioned techniques. This is something to consider before you decide on a long-haired feline companion. By the way, the medical name for a hairball is a trichobezoar