Do Big Cats Get Hairballs?

Domestic cats often hack up gooey mats of fur, but it's rare in their larger kin.

Sometimes it's hard to decide which gift from your cat is your favourite. Is it the half-eaten beetle, the pool of vomit, or the hairballs?

Like it or not, most cat owners contend with hairballs at some point: Domestic cats spend up to half their waking hours grooming themselves.

But, we wondered, does the same thing happen to wildcats? (Read about surprising things you never knew about your cat.)

Here Comes the Groom

All cat species, wild or not, get hairballs, Letitia Fanucchi, an animal behaviourist at Washington State University, says via email. Grooming is not only soothing for domestic cats, it keeps them smooth and sleek. "They need to be sneaky and undetectable by prey, so keeping themselves clean helps."
But there's literally a catch.

"When cats groom, their bristle-like tongue catches a lot of hair and they swallow it, but hair is not digestible." So, before long, the feline will either cough, vomit, or poop out the hairball—a behaviour that happens in all cats, Fanucchi says.
Wildcats also have tongue bristles, called papillae, which are particularly useful in the wild. "One theory for the bristles is that they help to scrape meat off bones and position meat in their mouth," says Natalia Borrego, a research associate at the University of Minnesota Lion Centre.


Domestic cats spend most of their waking hours grooming, a soothing activity. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN ALVAREZ, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

But she's never known a lion, in or out of captivity, to cough up a hairball, "though physiologically there's no reason they wouldn't get them," she says via email.

Hairballs could be a sign of some underlying gastrointestinal problem, like inflammatory bowel syndrome, says Matthew Johnston, an associate professor at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

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Lions, Tigers, and Hairs

Whatever the cause, even though cats of all sizes groom themselves the same way, hairballs are "not a normal thing in big cats," captive or not, he notes.

Smaller wildcats in captivity, such as servals or ocelots, are often fed a domestic cat-like diet, while big cats such as jaguars and leopards get meat and animal carcasses. This may be why small cats occasionally vomit up hairballs, says Johnston. 


A serval, a type of wildcat native to Africa. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTO ARK

But there are a few cases of captive big cats suffering from hairballs.

In 2015, vets at Colorado State surgically removed a nearly 2-kilogram hairball from the stomach of Arthur, an African lion at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado. The animal had been eating less and losing weight.

When a tiger at Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Clearwater, Florida, began to show symptoms of appetite loss and sluggishness, vets discovered he had a four-pound hairball—which was also surgically removed, according to the Tampa Bay Times.


A wild ocelot stalks the forests of Belize. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANS LANTING, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Royal Behaviour

Lions do make a noise that might seem to some like hacking up a hairball, but is actually "a typical lion contact call or roar," Borrego says. 

"Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars all have a modified voice box that includes a ligament that enables them to roar and make that very loud, deep sound," she adds.

After all, the king of beasts would never be caught doing anything as undignified as coughing up a hairball.

LEAD IMAGE: An African lion grooms his paw in Botswana. PHOTOGRAPH BY SERGIO PITAMITZ, ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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