Cat Has Hairball: Why & What To Do

Key takeaway

While cats coughing and hacking up hairballs may seem unnatural and even scary, it is a perfectly natural thing for them to do. It is normal for cats to cough up a hairball as often as once per week or two weeks. The only time a hairball can pose a threat to your cat’s health is when it gets lodged in their gastrointestinal tracking, causing a blockage.

While a cat throwing up a hairball is often seen as comedic relief in cartoons and movies, watching your feline friend gag and cough in real life can be a lot more jarring and worrisome. As pet parents, we always want our cats to live long, happy lives, and you may be wondering if it’s normal for your cat to get hairballs. Or, if it hurts when your cat coughs up a hairball. 

While the motion and sounds involved in a cat coughing up a hairball may be unsettling, the act itself is considered to be a normal, painless, and even inevitable part of their routines. Due to the anatomy of their tongues, there is no 100 percent effective way to prevent hairballs, but there are still ways we can reduce the occurrence of this uncomfortable situation. 

The only time when a hairball can pose a threat to your cat’s health is when it is too big and causes an intestinal blockage. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate veterinary assistance. Keep reading to learn how hairballs form, how to help your cat pass a hairball,  how to minimize hairballs in cats, and more. 

What Are Hairballs?

A cat hairball is a damp, tangled mass of undigested fur that collects in the stomach as a result of grooming

The medical term used to describe a hairball is trichobezoar, with “trich” meaning hair and “bezoar” meaning a foreign object that blocks the stomach and intestines. A hairball is a tangled mass of undigested fur that collects in the stomach of cats as a result of the grooming process. It is typically damp and mildly foul smelling due to being combined with bile and other digestive fluids.1

When you examine a hairball your cat has coughed up, you may notice that it is similar in color or a little darker than your cat’s fur. However, you may be surprised to see that, unlike its name suggests, it is not spherical in shape. Rather, cat hairballs tend to be cylindrical due to the shape of the esophagus. They are typically around one inch in length but can vary in size. 

How Do Hairballs Form?

Cats are extremely cleanly animals, and this reputation contributes to why people love them so much. In fact, most cats spend around 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming.2 Not only do they groom to clean themselves and dislodge the dirt, bugs, and debris from their fur, but licking themselves can also help them regulate their body temperature, promote circulation, and even hide their scent from predators. 

In terms of anatomy, a cat’s tongue is the perfect grooming apparatus. Covered in tiny backwards barbs made out of keratin called papillae, cat tongues are essentially little combs. They effectively distribute the oil in their fur and catch any loose hair. However, due to this anatomy, they are also forced to swallow some of the fur they comb out every grooming session, leading hairballs to form in their stomachs.3 

Comprising keratin, hair cannot be properly digested and therefore continues to amass in the stomach. While some of this hair is eventually discarded as it passes through the digestive tract, a sizable portion of it stays behind and forms a cat hairball.

Close up of a cat’s mouth in the process of vomiting 

Are Hairballs Normal? 

Since all cats will inevitably swallow some fur each time they groom themselves, hairballs are entirely normal and natural. Both long-haired and short-haired cats can get hairballs, but cats with longer hair tend to produce hairballs at a faster rate. Overall, there is nothing to worry about in terms of cats having hairballs, especially if you are taking measures to help them pass their hairballs. If you see your cat throwing up a hairball every week or two, there is no need to be concerned. 

Are Hairballs Ever A Cause for Concern?

Despite how common cat hairballs are, they can still be dangerous if they get too big to pass through the esophagus or the intestinal tract. A large hairball that squeezes through the small intestine can become lodged in there, causing an obstruction. While uncommon, this is a very serious situation and your cat will need immediate surgery. A GI obstruction can inhibit food and fluid to pass and even lead to damage of the digestive tissues. Unfortunately, if left untreated, your feline friend could lose their life.4 

Hairballs can become lodged in a cat’s gastrointestinal tract and cause a blockage, which is an emergency

Some signs that your cat is experiencing an intestinal blockage include:

  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty passing stool
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Abnormal body temperature
  • Dehydration 
  • Shock4

Persistent vomiting and diarrhea in a cat should always be taken seriously, and if you suspect an intestinal blockage, take your cat to the emergency vet as soon as possible. If you are worried about your cat’s grooming habits or how often they are coughing up hairballs, consult a vet for help.

Diagnosing And Treating Cat Hairballs

If you see your cat vomiting hairballs or find hairballs throughout your house, you may not need to take your cat in for a checkup. However, if you have any questions about whether your cat’s frequency of coughing up hairballs is normal or if your cat is showing any signs of discomfort after passing a hairball, consulting a veterinarian is always a good idea. 

If your cat is constantly getting hairballs and you notice them aggressively grooming or displaying any other signs of gastrointestinal issues, a trip to the animal hospital is recommended. Your vet may run a few skin, blood, and gastrointestinal tests to see if there are any underlying medical issues. If there is a problem that is causing your cat to overgroom like pain or a skin allergy, your vet will work with you to properly address them.

If you suspect your cat to have a gastrointestinal blockage due to a hairball, there will likely be a more thorough examination process with additional steps. Other than considering your cat’s overall health, medical history, and current status, your vet may also palpate the abdomen to look for an obstruction and use imaging like x-rays and ultrasounds to reach an accurate diagnosis.

Once an obstruction is confirmed, it will need to be removed. This will either be done via an endoscope or surgery. The sooner your cat undergoes surgery, the less chance there will be any damage to the intestines. After the procedure, your cat may need to stay at the hospital to be monitored for a few days. Your vet will give you more instruction on how to care for them in terms of post-op diet, medication, and activity level.

What You Can Do About Your Cat’s Hairballs

If you are worried about your cat getting hairballs, there are a few adjustments you can make to their diets to help decrease the frequency and ease their discomfort. It is crucial to always speak with a vet before you make any drastic changes. A vet can give you recommendations on what products to use, how to help your cat acclimate to a new type of food, and even prescribe a special diet for your cat. 

Laxatone

Laxatone is an oral gel that can help bind and lubricate the hair in your cat’s stomach, making it easier for cats to pass them. There are many laxatone products available on the market, and they typically come in flavors such as tuna that appeal to cats.

Over-The-Counter Hairball Diets

Hairball-control diets that you can readily purchase at supermarkets or pet stores typically contain more fiber to help move the hair more easily through a cat’s gastrointestinal tract so it doesn’t accumulate. Soluble fiber can also promote overall gut health.

Prescription Diets

If your cat has trouble passing hairballs and displays any other gastrointestinal issues, your vet may suggest a prescription diet that supports digestive health. These diets may contain prebiotics, probiotics, and a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids.

Minimizing Hairballs In Cats

Ways to minimize hairballs in cats

Although it is inevitable that your cat vomits hairballs from time to time, there are ways that you can help make this distressing and troublesome occurrence less frequent or severe. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Brush and de-shed frequently: Brushing your cat frequently can help catch and remove loose hair before they have the chance to swallow it while grooming themselves. Long-haired cats are prone to shedding and need more frequent brushing, at least every other day is recommended. Baths for cats can also come in handy when you need to remove excess fur from your cat when they change coats.
  • Discourage excessive grooming: A cat that overgrooms can accumulate hair in their stomach at a higher rate, potentially leading to larger hairballs that can cause blockages. Excessive grooming may also indicate cat anxiety, cat skin allergies, or even that your cat is in pain.
  • Utilize hairball relief products: Hairball relief and control products like laxatone can help cats more easily pass hair in their stool
  • Add fiber into their diet: Adding more fiber to your cat’s food can help promote regular bowel movements.
  • Promote hydration: Dehydration can lead to constipation, so encouraging your cat to drink more water by frequently refreshing their water bowls, using a cat water fountain, or feeding your cat more wet food is a good idea.

Cat Has Hairball: Frequently Asked Questions

Does wet cat food help with hairballs?

Yes, wet cat food helps cats pass hairballs more easily. The high-water content of wet food prevents dehydration, which can lead to constipation. Wet food is also easier to digest for cats.

Is it normal for cats to throw up hairballs every day?

No, it is not normal for cats to throw up hairballs every day. The normal frequency of throwing up hairballs is around once every one to two weeks. If your cat is vomiting every day, there is likely an underlying health issue. Seek veterinary help as soon as possible.

What's the difference between a hairball and throw up?

When a cat is throwing up a hairball, you will find a clump of wet fur instead of partially digested food, bile, or any other contents. Vomiting a hairball is a relatively normal and frequent occurrence in cats. If your cat begins to persistently vomit all of a sudden, see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

A cat laying on a bed next to a brush full of cat hair

Final Notes

In most cases, there is no need to worry if your cat is throwing up a hairball. Although uncomfortable, they shouldn’t be experiencing any pain and will go back to their normal selves in no time. If you notice any signs of a bowel obstruction, however, take your cat to an emergency vet immediately. They may require surgical intervention to remove the obstruction.

If you have any other questions about cat hairballs or how to choose a high-quality cat diet, talk to a licensed Dutch vet. Dutch can provide veterinary care when your local vet is out of office, getting your pet timely help in the comfort of their own home. Try Dutch today.  

References

  1. "A Hairy Dilemma." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell Feline Health Center, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/hairy-dilemma

  2. "Cats that Lick Too Much." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell Feline Health Center, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much

  3. "Cool Facts About Your Cat's Tongue." PetMD, 23 Jan. 2018, https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/cool-facts-about-your-cats-tongue

  4. Gibson, Thomas G. "Gastrointestinal Obstruction in Small Animals." Merck Veterinary Manual, Oct 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/diseases-of-the-stomach-and-intestines-in-small-animals/gastrointestinal-obstruction-in-small-animals