Cat Hairballs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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Countless cat lovers have experienced the less-than-pleasant sensation of stepping barefoot onto a wet, furry, and sometimes still-warm hairball left on the floor. Whether your cat has coughed up her first hairball or just one of many, it’s good to know what is and is not normal about cat hairballs.

What Are Cat Hairballs?

A cat hairball is one of those things that is exactly what it sounds like: a ball of hair, originating from a cat. The scientific name for hairballs is trichobezoar.

Hairballs occur when cats ingest their own hair while grooming themselves. Although hair usually passes through the cat’s digestive tract (where it is eventually pooped out), sometimes hair remains inside the stomach.

Since hair cannot be digested, any hair that doesn’t pass out of the stomach and into the intestines balls up inside the stomach, where it remains. Cats often “cough up” (more specifically, vomit up) hairballs, so many times cat owners find them on the floor or furniture.

If the cat does not expel a large hairball (either by vomiting it up or passing it through the digestive system and out of the body by defecating), it can cause a potentially life-threatening obstruction of the intestinal tract. 

What Causes Cat Hairballs?

Almost all cats have hairballs, but some cats are more prone to recurrent or frequent hairballs than others.

  • Recurrent hairballs are frequently seen in certain longhaired cat breeds like Himalayans, Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, Persians, Ragdolls, and Siberians, or in any breed or mixed breed cats with a lot of hair.
  • Hairballs can also be a problem in cats that obsessively overgroom themselves (a behavior that is often a symptom of anxiety or stress).
  • A lack of regular brushing on the part of the cat owner can also cause a cat to ingest too much hair when grooming herself, which can lead to hairballs.
  • Finally, some cats may develop recurrent hairballs if they have issues with gastrointestinal motility (the ability of the muscles of the stomach and intestines to move food and in this case, hair, through the digestive tract). 

What Do Cat Hairballs Look Like?

Hairballs typically have a cylindrical, feces-like shape and usually come up with some clear or yellow liquid. If your cat’s eaten grass recently, grass or bits of undigested food may also come with the hairball.

Cat hairballs all look different, but they are generally wet wads of hair, saturated with a clear or yellow liquid that might be foamy or slimy-looking.

You may or may not also see food in the vomited hairball mass. Although called hairballs, they are not always ball-shaped when your cat vomits them up. The hair (which might have looked like a ball in the stomach) becomes stretched and compressed as it passes through the esophagus.

For this reason, cat hairballs usually look like long, thin tubes of hair. Hairballs can be large or small, in one large clump or broken into several tubular-looking wads. If there is a lot of liquid or food in the vomit, it may sometimes be difficult to see the hair. 

How Do You Know If Your Cat Has Hairballs?

The clearest sign that your cat has hairballs is finding one on the floor. Before coughing up a hairball, cats usually hunch down on the floor and make a dramatic hacking, coughing or gagging sound.

However, sometimes cats have hairballs and they are not able to vomit them up. Hair trapped in the intestinal tract can cause serious problems, so it’s vital to have your cat seen by a veterinarian if you think she might have hairballs.

Some signs that a cat has hairballs include:

  • Coughing, gagging or hacking without producing a hairball
  • Vomiting with or without visible hair
  • Not eating or eating less than usual
  • Lethargy (lack of energy/lying around)
  • Acting as if in pain

Other Health Issues That Resemble Cat Hairballs 

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if your cat has hairballs or another health condition. Two health issues that often masquerade as hairballs are asthma and vomiting (for reasons other than hairballs).

However, you can look for some clues to help you figure out what might be going on with your cat.

Cat Hairball or Asthma?

Cats suffering from an asthma attack will wheeze, which can be very similar to the coughing and gagging sounds a cat makes when attempting to cough up a hairball. To distinguish between a cat that is wheezing and a cat that is coughing up a hairball, pay attention at two things. First, closely watch the cat’s posture.

A cat that is wheezing will hunch down very low to the floor and stretch her head and neck out as she attempts to suck in more air.

A cat that is coughing up a hairball will usually have her back arched a bit more and her head and neck will point down rather than extending out. The second thing to look for is if a hairball is produced. If you see a hairball, it’s likely the culprit of the coughing and gagging. 

Cat Hairball or Vomit?

When a cat “coughs up” a hairball, she is in fact vomiting. However, cats can vomit for other reasons that don’t involve hairballs.

If you see hair in the vomit, it’s likely that the vomiting is due to a hairball, especially if your cat isn’t acting overtly sick otherwise. If your cat vomits and is acting ill (not eating, lethargic and/or also experiencing diarrhea) it might not be a simple hairball.

It’s also possible for a cat that does have a hairball in her stomach to vomit without producing any hair, so a lack of hair in the vomit is not always indicative of what’s causing the vomiting. If your cat experiences repeated vomiting, it always warrants a visit to the veterinarian to investigate the cause. 

Cat Hairball Treatment

Relaxed cat being brushed to prevent hairballs

Regularly brushing your cat can help to reduce the amount of fur he ingests and, hence, the incidence of hairballs.

Treating cat hairballs consists of first addressing the current hairball your cat has, then making some lifestyle changes and additions to your cat’s diet to prevent future hairballs. A visit to your veterinarian can rule out any medical causes for the hairball, such as problems with gastrointestinal motility, as well as identify a potential blockage.

With a blockage, the hairball passes through the stomach but becomes trapped in the intestines. This can be a life-threatening situation so it’s important to get the hairball out. In some cases, treatment consists of fluids and laxatives to help move the hairball along. In more severe cases, cat hairballs need to be surgically removed by your veterinarian. 

After the current hairball has been addressed, your veterinarian will recommend the following lifestyle changes to help prevent hairball recurrence:

Oral Remedy for Cat Hairballs

Petroleum jelly hairball remedies like Laxatone help to lubricate the hair so it moves through the cat’s gastrointestinal tract more easily. Some cat owners prefer to use non-petroleum hairball remedies, which work the same as petroleum-based products but are made with different kinds of lubricants. 

Read More: Best Cat Hairball Remedies

Natural Remedies for Cat Hairballs

One of the most natural and simple ways to cut down on hairballs is to brush your cat often. The more loose hair you can brush out of your cat’s coat, the less she will ingest while self-grooming. A de-shedding tool made for cats, like the FURminator, can be very helpful for cats with profuse undercoats. 

Read More: Best Cat Brushes and Deshedding Tools

Cat Food for Hairballs

Some cat foods are specially formulated to help prevent hairballs. Such hairball prevention diets contain extra fiber and certain ingredients intended to lubricate the intestinal tract.

Always talk to your vet before switching your cat’s food and make diet changes gradually to avoid stomach upset. 

Cat Treats for Hairballs

Similar to hairball prevention cat foods, special hairball prevention cat treats also contain added fiber and lubricating ingredients. Hairball prevention cat treats should be given according to the package directions, and like all treats, should make up no more than 10% of your cat’s total diet. 

Don’t Ignore Cat Hairballs

Something to keep in mind: cat hairballs are not “normal.”

Although it is normal for a cat to ingest some hair while self-grooming, in a healthy cat, the hair should pass through the digestive tract and be expelled from the body in the stool. Cats that cough up hairballs more than once or twice a month should be examined by your veterinarian. Cats that experience recurring hairballs require some lifestyle changes to reduce the incidence of hairballs.  

Jackie Brown

About Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is a freelance writer specializing in the pet industry. She writes on all pet and veterinary topics, including general health and care, nutrition, grooming, behavior, training, veterinary and health topics, rescue and animal welfare, lifestyle, and the human-animal bond. Jackie is the former editor of numerous pet magazines and is a regular contributor to pet magazines and websites.

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