Hairballs in Cats: The Basics

If you have a cat, you're probably familiar with the coughing up of hairballs... even if it only happens occasionally. (If you've never been treated to this event, consider yourself very fortunate!) You know they’re no fun to clean up, and worse, they can cause health problems for your cat. What you might not know is what causes hairballs, what symptoms to look for, and what you can do to prevent them.


What Is a Hairball in Cats?

You already know that your cat spends hours every day grooming him/herself. What you might not realize is that Kitty swallows a lot of hair in the process. 

Your cat's tongue has tiny, hook-like structures on it - that's what makes it feel rough - and those hooks catch loose and dead hair during grooming. That hair is then swallowed. “The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problems. But if some hair stays in the stomach, it can form a hairball. Usually, your cat will vomit the hairball to get rid of it." (Source)

If this is an occasional occurrence, it's not anything to worry about. More than occasional hairball vomiting, though, requires veterinary attention as it could be the sign of an underlying problem. However, sometimes larger clumps that can't be easily expelled can form. These larger clumps are called trichobezoars, and they have the potential to get stuck in Kitty's stomach or cause an obstruction in the intestines. These are serious problems that require surgery.

You have probably also learned that hairballs don't actually live up to their name - they're not round! (Well, they're not round when they're on your floor.) According to Cornell Feline Health Center "they are often slender and cylindrical, shaped more like a cigar or sausage than a ball.... [The] elongated shape is imparted by the narrow food tube (esophagus) in which it develops or through which it passes on its journey from the cat’s stomach to the outside world." 


Do All Cats Develop Hairballs?

As you can guess, long-haired breeds like Persians have the greatest tendency toward hairballs, though any cat can develop them because every cat sheds. (In fact, some short-haired cats shed more than some longer-haired cats!) As we discussed above, the risk is that the hairball can create an internal blockage and require emergency surgery. Far better to practice preventive maintenance such as regular brushing than to risk your cat's health!

It also turns out there are other symptoms besides the semi-routine retching you may have encountered (see below!). Any of these are definitely reasons to make an appointment with your veterinarian to discover the source of the problem.


Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

The most visible hairball symptom you’ve probably noticed is the retching and gagging that usually precedes the actual vomiting of the hairball. In addition to retching/gagging, your cat may exhibit:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Litter box troubles such as constipation or diarrhea 
  • Lethargy


After all, if the hair accumulates and causes an internal blockage, you can imagine how uncomfortable that could be. Any time your kitty stops eating or shows changes in his/her litter box habits, contact your veterinarian because such such behavior changes can be warning indicators of a range of health concerns - including hairballs.


Treatment and Prevention of Hairballs

Self-grooming and shedding are normal in all cats, which means that hairballs aren't completely avoidable. However, you can take some steps to reduce them.

Brushing can be the purr-fect way to bond with your cat!First, commit to regular brushing. Brushing Kitty leads to less loose hair, which means less hair for Kitty to swallow during his/her own grooming sessions. Plus, regular brushing sessions can become great bonding time for you and Kitty. Of course, sometimes a trip to a groomer can be helpful, particularly if your cat has very long hair that mats easily. A groomer has special tools to remove loose hair, plus, s/he'll know those extra tips and tricks to reduce the potential of hairballs.

Another option is a diet change; just be sure to check with us before you switch your cat's food. Some foods are specially formulated to cut down on hairballs, so if your cat has more than a hairball or two a month, a change might be worth considering.

You should also pay attention to your cat's water intake. While more water won't cure hairballs, keeping Kitty hydrated properly keeps everything running smoothly and may make them less common. (If Kitty isn't a fan of his/her current water bowl, maybe try a different style of bowl - many cats love water fountain style bowls!)

Finally, encourage play as another way for him/her to spend his/her time. "New toys can help distract him from excessive grooming—and get him more stimulation and exercise. Exercise aids his general health, which may help his system work a little smoother, too." (Source)

If none of these things work, there are also a variety of hairball lubricants on the market that can help prevent these entanglements. Ask your veterinarian for a recommendation.


If you have any questions or you want to schedule an appointment for your cat, give us a call or fill out our online form!



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