A look at the connection between hairballs and gut health in cats, and what you can do to prevent these regurgitated clumps of fur!
Cat’s tongues are covered in hundreds of tiny scoop-shaped spines, called papillae, that function like a built-in comb when they groom themselves. It’s normal for cats to ingest their fur while cleaning themselves. The fur typically passes through their digestive system and is eliminated in their stool. Sometimes, however, ingested fur accumulates in the stomach and is regurgitated as one big clump – a hairball.
Also called trichobezoars, hairballs are normal for domestic cats to experience a couple times a year. Cats with frequent and regular hairballs may have an underlying health problem that is related to their digestive tract. Here we discuss the connection between the microorganisms that line the digestive tract and hairballs, and what cat parents can do about a hairball problem.
Hairballs and your cat’s gut microbiome
What is the gut microbiome?
The gut microbiome refers to the community of bacteria and other microbes that live throughout a cat’s intestines. The health of this community plays a role in nearly every aspect of your cat’s health from nutrient absorption to immune system function.
About gut motility
Excessive hairballs could be a sign of impaired gut motility, that is, the speed and ability of the digestive system to move material along. Reduced gut motility can affect the gut microbiome by interfering with nutrient absorption and causing bacterial overgrowth, but scientists have found that there are many ways that the gut microbiome can influence gut motility too.
The relationship can be simple – such as generating mucus for food and other matter to move through the intestinal tract easily. It can also be complex; for example, beneficial gut bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids, which are important for regulating intestinal motility. When the gut microbiome becomes unbalanced, a cat may experience reduced gut motility.
Is reduced gut motility dangerous? Yes, it can be. If hair accumulates in the digestive tract faster than it can be processed, it can create a life-threatening blockage that requires surgical intervention.
Why cats overgroom
Grooming is a normal, self-soothing feline behavior, but overgrooming is often seen in cats that have itchy skin due to allergies, food sensitivities, or skin conditions. Excessive grooming can cause hairballs because the cat is ingesting more fur than the digestive system can handle.
Your cat’s gut microbiome plays an important role in his or her immune system function because 70% of immune cells are located in the gut. A cat’s immune system may not work properly when their gut microbiome is imbalanced, causing overreactions to their environment or ingredients in their diet. This can manifest as itchy skin, which cats respond to by overgrooming.
What you can do
There are many ways cat parents can help prevent hairballs. For example, regular brushing helps remove loose hair that would otherwise be ingested by the cat, especially for long-haired or older cats with reduced grooming abilities. It’s important for cat parents to talk with their veterinarian about how to best support a healthy and balanced gut microbiome.[adning id=”39058″]
Katherine Dahlhausen, PhD, is a science writer for AnimalBiome. She was mentored by Holly Ganz during the beginning of her PhD at University of California Davis and helped with the very beginning of the KittyBiome project. Katherine has worked on a wide variety of microbiome-related projects to date, including ones about koalas, buildings, pollinators, and coral reefs. In her free time, she enjoys scuba diving, hiking, and cooking.