Do big cats get hairballs?

March 22, 2018, 9:50 a.m.
A lion grooms its paw
Photo: MaksMaria/Shutterstock

Ah, the hairball. A gross, wet glob of hair that your beloved cat throws up, often into one of your favorite shoes. While we know that domesticated kitties get hairballs — and they should really only get one or two a year, by the way; if they have more, consult your veterinarian — what about big cats that live out in the wild? Do the lions and tigers of the world hack up those mounds of hair and just leave them on rangers' vehicles?

Big cats aren't very likely to cough up a hair ball, so the vehicles of park rangers are safe, but they do happen every now and then.

When house cats groom, their bristle-like tongues gather up some hair in the process. This hair, while indigestible, often moves through the digestive system and comes out in the litter box. If there's a build-up of hair, your precious kitty spits out the hair as a hairball.

Big cats are the same. Their bristly tongues remove hair and it goes through their bodies. It passes out of their bodies when they poop, but sometimes there's a big hairball. Like, could use salad tongs to pick it up.

But such hairballs are pretty rare, Matthew Johnston, an associate professor at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, told National Geographic. Meat and animal carcasses are the diet for these big cats, and it may have something to do with why they're less prone to hairballs than a house cat, according to Johnston.

And just like with our snuggly pets, hairballs can cause problems for big cats, too. A 400-pound lion residing at a rehabilitation center in Florida had to have a hairball weighing four pounds surgically removed in 2013. Like smaller kitties with a hairball blockage, the lion had showed signs of lethargy and a reduced appetite.

While we don't recommend that you help big cats reduce their risk for hairballs, you can help your own cat avoid hairballs by grooming them regularly, especially when they're shedding, and get special "hairball formula" cat foods that encourage hairballs to move through the digestive system.

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