Hairballs in Cats

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Cat sitting on sofa looking at camera.

Getty Images/Aleksandr Zubkov

Hairballs can happen in any cat, but cats with long hair or those that shed profusely are more likely to develop them. Sometimes, hairballs are nothing more than a mess to clean up, but they can also cause vomiting and even potentially dangerous obstructions. Find out how to prevent hairballs and what treatment options exist in case your cat has a problem with them.

What Are Hairballs?

Technically known as trichobezoars, hairballs are compacted wads of fur that are ingested and collected inside your cat's stomach. Once vomited out, they are tube-shaped from passing through a cat's esophagus and 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.

Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs are easy to identify because they are simply balls or wads of regurgitated hair. Symptoms associated with the ingestion of excessive hair include:

Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

  • Vomit that contains wads of hair
  • Reluctance to eat
  • Difficulty defecating (straining)
  • Painful abdomen

It's usually pretty obvious when your cat vomits a hairball, but if a hairball is causing a gastrointestinal 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


There is 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 excessively 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 its winter coat.
  • Skin disorders or diseases: Aside from allergies that affect 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

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 obstruction (frequent vomiting or trouble defecation), it's time for a vet visit.

Your veterinarian will likely recommend x-rays to look for signs of obstruction and will perform blood work to make sure there are no indications of underlying illnesses.

Treatment of Hairballs in Cats

Most cases of hairballs either pass on their own or can be helped with a gentle and palatable feline laxative gel.

If your cat has a problematic hairball, laxatives, intravenous (IV) or subcutaneous (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 administer 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.

Prognosis for Cats with Hairballs

Hairballs are rarely a big deal, and most cats will expel them without problems. Cats that experience obstructions require more invasive treatment, such as surgery, which always carries risk. Once the hairball has been removed, though, a cat will be much more comfortable and able to revcover.

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.