Hairballs in Cats

Cat sitting on sofa looking at camera.

Getty Images/Aleksandr Zubkov

Hairballs can happen in any cat but some are more likely to develop them than others. Sometimes hairballs are nothing more than a mess to clean up but they can also cause serious issues for your cat. Find out how to prevent hairballs and what treatment options you have for your cat if they get one.

What Are Hairballs?

Technically known as trichobezoars, hairballs are compacted wads of fur that are ingested and collect inside your cat's stomach. They are tube shaped, like your cat's esophagus, and typically full of slimy fur. Hairballs are typically vomited up either by themselves, alongside partially digested food, or are eliminated in the feces, but they can also lodge themselves inside your cat and cause a blockage. These blockages prevent your cat from digesting its food properly.

Signs of Hairballs in Cats

Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

  • Vomiting hairballs
  • Unable to keep food or water down
  • Difficulty defecating
  • Painful abdomen

It's usually pretty obvious when your cat vomits a hairball, but if a hairball is causing an obstruction, non-productive retching or vomiting up food or water may occur. Additionally, if the hairball has caused a blockage in your cat's digestive system, your cat may have trouble or be unable to defecate. This can also cause your cat to have a painful abdomen so it may be more sensitive to being picked up or pet on its belly.

Hairball that a cat vomited on a sofa.
Hairballs are vomited up and may also contain food and other items.

Getty Images/lolostock

Causes of Hairballs in Cats

There is really only one reason why cats get hairballs and that's because they ingest hair. Hair ingestion regularly occurs when a cat is grooming itself or another cat. Usually this is only a small amount of hair that doesn't clump up inside your cat and cause a problem, but there are a few things that may result in hairballs being more common or problematic.

  • Digestive disorders or diseases - Intestinal cancers, tumors, inflammatory conditions, foreign body ingestion, and other problems may all contribute to a problematic hairball.
  • Allergies - If your cat is excesively itchy or has inflamed skin due to allergies, hairballs are more likely to occur since your cat will groom more often.
  • Excessive self-grooming - Some cats are excessive groomers for psychological reasons and ingest more hair than is safe. This is especially problematic if your cat has long hair or they are shedding their winter coat.
  • Skin disorders or diseases - Aside from allergies that effect your cat's skin, other skin issues can contribute to an increase in grooming. Skin cancers, parasites, and infections may all lead your cat to ingest more hair than is normal.

Diagnosing a Hairball in Your Cat

Some experts note that an occasionally vomiting a hairball is not a concern, but if you suspect your cat has a hairball that is causing an obstruction, this is not something that should be ignored. If your cat is showing signs of an obstruction, your veterinarian needs to get involved. They will likely recommend X-rays to look for signs of an obstruction and will check its blood work to make sure there are no underlying illnesses. If your cat has a history of regular hairballs, this is also good information to share with your vet.

Treatment of Hairballs in Cats

If your cat has a problematic hairball, laxatives, IV or SQ fluids, or even surgery may be needed to treat it and remove it. Sometimes an overnight stay in the hospital will be necessary to adminster IV fluids and oral laxatives but if the hairball is not able to be passed naturally, surgical removal of the hairball will also be warranted. A hairball that has lodged itself in your cat's intestinal tract either needs to pass naturally in the feces or be removed surgically.

How to Prevent Hairballs in Cats

The best way to prevent your cat from getting a hairball is to brush it regularly to cut down on the amount of potential fur it ingests. Haircuts can also help, especially if your cat has long hair. If your cat is still experiencing hairballs after taking these preventative measures, oral supplements that are petroleum based may help hairballs pass through your cat naturally.

Finally, ensure your cat doesn't eat things like rubber bands, twist ties, and other small items that may attract ingested hair and aid in the creation of a hairball.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
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