Hairballs in Cats

A cat grooming itself
Getty/Moment/Junichi Ishito

Hairballs are a common part of the self-grooming process of cats. While grooming, cats ingest hair by licking their coats. If there is more hair buildup than can pass through the digestive tract, a hairball will form in the GI tract. Cats expel these hairballs by vomiting them up. This should not happen excessively. If it does, the hairballs may be a sign of a different and more serious problem. While they cannot be completely prevented, there are a few ways to lessen the frequency and severity of hairballs.

What Are Hairballs?

Hairballs, technically called trichobezoars, are made up of the hair that cats swallow as a normal part of the grooming process. As they lick their coat to clean themselves, they swallow the loose hair. Usually, this hair simply passes through the cat’s system during the regular digestion process. However, if there is too much hair to pass naturally through their digestive tract, a ball of hair will form in the stomach. Hair cannot be digested, so it binds together while in the cat’s stomach. The ball becomes too large to pass through the digestive tract, so the cat must vomit it up.  

Long-haired cats tend to suffer from hairballs more often than short-haired cats since they have more hair to groom. Their downy undercoats add to the amount of hair that needs to be cleaned. Cats are exceptionally good groomers. They groom throughout the day and rarely need to be given baths because they can clean themselves well. Most cats do not have a problem with the amount of hair groomed and do not form hairballs; for those that do, hairballs should not be a frequent occurrence as this could suggest other problems.

Signs of Hairballs in Cats

Initially, vomiting is the only symptom that signals your cat has a hairball. Since cat hair cannot be digested, vomiting is the only way for a cat to rid themselves of the excess hair in their system. Most cat owners recognize the sound of a cat vomiting and usually understand their pet is getting rid of the hairball. 

Cats typically need no help in ridding themselves of hairballs; an owner’s job is to clean up the hairball. Sometimes, you will find hairballs that are in hidden places or dried from being deposited somewhere that was not noticed right away. A hairball usually looks like an elongated mass since it must pass through the esophagus. Hairballs may contain other materials as well, such as food and debris. 

If the cat is unable to vomit the excess hair, it can cause problems for your cat’s health. It can block the intestine or esophagus which will interrupt their feeding process. If this occurs, you may notice additional symptoms in your cat. They may have no appetite, coughs, constipation, or changes in mood. At this point, your veterinarian should be consulted. 

Vomiting hair could be a sign of problems outside of ingesting hair. There are other conditions that could cause hairball formations.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Hypomotility disorder
  • Food allergies
  • Parasites

These conditions could cause a hairball that could obstruct your cat’s GI tract. In rare but serious cases, surgery must be done to remove the trichobezoar from the stomach.

Hairball Prevention

You cannot completely eliminate hairballs, but you may be able to help your cat manage the amount of hair they digest while grooming.  

  • Brushing / grooming your cat
  • Hairball prevention supplements
  • Hairball control cat food
  • Managing allergies or skin conditions

Frequent brushing of your cat’s fur will remove much of the loose hair. Adding a grooming tool like the FURminator that is specifically designed for cat coats can make this process even more effective.

Hairball relief products act as a laxative to help pass the hairball through the cat’s digestive system. Hairball control cat food and cat treats add fiber to your cat’s diet with the idea that additional fiber will activate the digestive process. Some people have also had success adding small amounts of canned pumpkin to their cat's diets to provide extra fiber. Consult your veterinarian before using any of these methods.

Cats with skin conditions or allergies may groom excessively, causing more opportunities for hairballs to be formed. Treating these issues can stop the need for your cat to groom as much.

If your cat suffers from an excessive number of hairballs or exhibits any of the symptoms listed here, consult your veterinarian for help.

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.