Fur-balls may affect any age or breed of cat but is a more common problem in long-haired cats especially if these animals are also overweight or kept indoors. Older cats tend to experience this problem more frequently than younger animals.
Cats may get fur-balls for a number of reasons. The most important cause of fur-balls is over-grooming leading to an ingestion of fur in large amounts. Cats will over-groom if they have itchy skin; this may be because of fleas or other parasites or may be due to some other skin disease which causes inflammation of the skin and makes the cat itchy.
Another cause of excessive grooming is stress. Cats which are stressed, for whatever reason, may express this by grooming and licking themselves more than is actually necessary to keep themselves clean. Humans do this kind of thing too when we bite our nails or run our fingers through our hair in stressful situations. This kind of behaviour is known as a displacement activity and you can often observe it in cats (watch for the times that your cat seems to want to do something and is thwarted: they will often stop and perform a vigorous licking of their fur in mid-activity, this is obviously nothing to do with real grooming but may be an expression of frustration.) Cats which are kept indoors with little activity or stimulation may become very bored and over-groom themselves as a result of this. Sometimes the over-grooming activity is so pronounced that the cats will cause bald, inflamed areas of skin and obviously they will be very prone to fur-balls. This extreme condition is known as psychogenic dermatitis and is believed to be due to stress.
Overweight cats may also become so sedentary that they too become bored and groom excessively. If the cat is not able to move around much its bowel motility will be poor, which will make it much more prone to constipation anyway, and even more so if hair is present in the faecal material.
If your cat has fur balls you may notice that it retches or coughs (retching can seem much like coughing but when a cat retches it tends to crouch low with its head extended and opens its mouth wide in an effort to vomit). The cat may manage to bring up some vomit which may consist of food or bile with or without hair or a hair ball. Usually the hair-ball is expelled eventually and will look like a sausage of wet matted fur. If your cat becomes constipated due to fur balls it may be difficult to spot. Constipated cats are often dull and lethargic, they will not have a good appetite for food and may vomit. The cat will pass a reduced amount of faeces which may be dry and/ or contain hair. Sometimes a hair-ball can be passed in the faeces. Often owners are unaware of the appearance of their pet's faeces because the cat goes outside to defecate but if your cat is vomiting any hair-balls it would be wise to consider whether or not your cat could also be constipated.
Cats are fairly easily treated for fur balls with a good outcome in most cases. However the underlying cause of the problem should be addressed as well. Treatment usually involves giving a lubricating laxative preparation by mouth such as Katalax to encourage the faecal passage of the hair ball. A high fibre diet can also be given such as Hills w/d or r/d. This will help obese cats to lose weight but will also help with the constipation caused by a sedentary life-style and the hair-balls. It will help if you can brush or comb your cat regularly to reduce the amount of hair which may be ingested. Address the cause of the problem by controlling external parasites such as fleas, treating any underlying skin disease, identifying and removing any causes of stress, providing activities and stimulation for the indoor cat and controlling the weight of an obese pet.
If your cat is vomiting frequently or seems to be constipated it is wise to seek veterinary attention for your pet.