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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I am concerned about my cat. She hates being groomed. She has long hair and frequently licks herself and my other cat. I do not see any hair in her stool, but she does at times have a hacking type cough. My friend says this is due to hairballs. Do I need to take my cat to a vet? How is this treated?

~ Jack

Thomas hiding in his cave. Photo by JaneA Kelley, licensed under a Creative Commons attribution/share-alike license.

Cats that don't feel well tend to hide.

Siouxsie: Well, Jack, a lot of people find it hard to tell the difference between a cat getting ready to yack up a hairball and one that is coughing.

Thomas: The biggest difference is that if the cat is working on a hairball, eventually that hairball will come out. Okay … once in a great while, a cat will get a hairball so huge that they have to have surgery to have it removed. But if that were the case with your cat, you’d see obvious symptoms like loss of appetite, since the cat wouldn’t have room in her stomach for anything but the hairball.

Dahlia: On the other hand, a cat that is coughing can make noises that sound a lot like the “hairball hack” but nothing comes out.

Siouxsie: In order to help you tell the difference between a hairball hack and a hacking cough, we’ve found these two videos.

Thomas: In this video, the cat is working on a hairball. Be warned — the hairball does come out, so if you don’t want to watch a cat vomit, don’t hit the play button.


(In a reader? Watch the video here.)

Dahlia: This cat is coughing due to asthma.


(In a reader? Watch the video here.)

Siouxsie: We don’t know what your cat sounds like, Jack, and we’re not veterinarians. Our best advice to you is that yes, you should take your cat to the vet for a checkup. If you can, try to get video of your cat’s coughing fits — that can be very helpful information and go a good way toward a definitive diagnosis.

Thomas: Asthma isn’t the only reason cats cough. Sometimes it’s due to upper respiratory infection or allergies (yes, cats can and do get hay fever on occasion).

Dahlia: Your vet will have lots of information for you on how to treat any respiratory problems your cat may be having.

Siouxsie: In order to prevent hairballs, your vet may suggest you use a hairball-lubricating paste. These are sold under brand names like Petromalt and Laxatone, and often large pet supply chains will have their own store brand. They contain mineral oil or petroleum jelly and typically taste like tuna, salmon or chicken.

Thomas: We also suggest that you get your cat used to being groomed. Even if she doesn’t suffer from hairballs, if her fur starts to mat it can cause discomfort and even infections (bacteria and fungi will start growing under the mat).

Dahlia: You might want to take your kitty to a groomer first. Especially if she has mats, it might be a good idea to get her a “lion cut” to get rid of the snarls. You can also ask the groomer about what tools you should use to groom your cat at home.

Siouxsie: There are tools designed specially for long-haired cats, which will help you comb out mats without pulling her fur and hurting her sensitive skin.

Thomas: Your vet can also give you advice on grooming tools, and some vets even offer grooming services.

Dahlia: So, Jack, the bottom line is, take your cat to the vet for a checkup. Film your cat’s coughing episode and share it with the vet so he or she can get a better handle on her condition.

Siouxsie: Even if it turns out to be nothing serious, you’ll feel better for having made sure your cat’s okay.

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