Hairballs in Cats | Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Hairballs can be as much of a nuisance for your cat as they can be for you (and that’s because every respectable cat parent will start worrying about them). Sooner or later, your lovely feline companion will feel the need to eliminate a hairball in some way or the other, and if the animal can’t excrete it naturally through the feces, you’ll come across a small puddle of hairy vomit on the floor.

The vast majority of cats have a hard time eliminating hairballs ‘the right way’ and it’s so prevalent that approximately thirty-five percent of all cats will experience vomiting because of them at least once in their lifetime. Naturally, the short-haired breeds or those that almost have none will have fewer problems passing the hairball, but that’s not the case with most other cats. Long-haired breeds like Maine Coons and Persians are more likely to suffer from this issue.

How do hairballs develop?

If you’ve ever watched a cat closely, even if you are not a cat parent, then you probably know that domesticated felines are very into cleaning their own bodies. While dogs have no cleaning routine in particular and sometimes, when they do lick parts of their bodies, that could be a sign that something is wrong in that area, cats groom themselves every day.

In fact, when you start noticing that your cat has given up grooming completely, it’s safe to say that you have to take her to the vet as soon as possible. The lack of grooming in cats is a sign that something is so wrong that the animal doesn’t even feel like doing it.

Any cat swallows a lot of dead hair while grooming herself. The pet’s tongue is anatomically designed in such a way that it comes with papillae (small backward-slanted projections) on the surface, and so the hair goes down her throat both quickly and effectively.

Kittens and young cats are less likely of developing hairballs, and that’s because they are less experienced when it comes to cleaning their coat. Besides, shedding begins only once the cat is at least several months old, and given the amount of energy they have, they rarely manifest an extreme interest in grooming themselves for as many hours daily as adults do.

Since some cats actually like grooming a lot more compared to others, they will experience hairball-related issues a lot more often.


As they are developed, hairballs will likely go unnoticed until they occupy a lot of room inside the cat’s stomach or intestines and as such, they need to be expelled. Whether you’ve noticed it or not while cleaning the litter box, the fact is that a good amount of hair is eliminated through the feces, and since it gets out of the body, there’s no symptom that you can detect.

Unfortunately, hairballs do have symptoms only when it’s too late for you to do something about them. The vomiting will occur either after the cat has had dinner or after a time span where he or she has shed a lot, and as such, she ingested a lot of hair.

In short, the symptoms that you will notice are gagging or retching, vomiting food and mucus or the actual hairballs, constipation, and reduced appetite. Not all cats will experience all of these. Healthy pets that have no other digestive issues will only vomit a hairball once a week or every two weeks.

However, if vomiting or retching occurs several times over twenty-four hours, you have to get in touch with a veterinarian. Hairballs can also be caused by pathologies like motility disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, and neoplasia. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your cat is suffering from any of these as they are chronic medical conditions and you should have noticed symptoms over a longer amount of time.

How are they dangerous?

Even though the vast majority of cats in the world will develop and expel hairballs without any other problem, sometimes they can be dangerous. If you notice that your cat has lost her appetite for more than a day and several episodes of unproductive retching have taken place, you need to contact your vet as soon as possible.

Why’s that? In some situations, a hairball can create a blockage as it goes from the stomach into the intestine. An obstruction, whether it is caused by a hairball or something else, can be a life-threatening condition because it makes it impossible for your cat to hydrate or feed.

Keep in mind that some of the symptoms of hairballs such as repeated retching can be confused with other medical conditions, especially respiratory ones — asthma is one of them. Asthma is lethal if it is not treated right away.

Intestinal blockages that have been diagnosed through radiography or any other special methods cannot be solved other than by performing surgery, and if your cat is older or has diabetes, surgery in itself might be risky for her and quite stressful, as well as expensive for you.

Prevention and treatment of Hairballs

There are some simple things that you can do to minimize the risk of hairball-related incidents. For one, you can start by brushing and combing your cat every day. Even though some animals might not like it, they will learn to enjoy it if you choose the right brush and make a routine out of this habit.

There are also options such as brushes that are fitted with a small trimming layer, and with the help of these, you can remove even more hair. If your cat doesn’t like being groomed in this way, you can take her to a specialized groomer or a vet to get a haircut once or twice per year. Keep in mind that sedation is recommended only a couple of times per year for health reasons.

Last, but not least, you could feed your cat a hairball remedy once a week, although, for long-haired breeds, you might have to do it twice per week. Petroleum-based laxatives are available for this purpose and they do a rather good job of facilitating the hairball to come out the right way.

Because hairballs are considered a symptom rather than a medical condition, the treatment doesn’t address them specifically but rather focuses on the problem that they cause. Obstructions can be solved through surgery, and if constipation is the consequence, it can be addressed by the use of mild laxatives or antispastic medication. Conclusion

Your cat will eliminate hairballs by vomiting or defecating. If the symptoms that we have highlighted above fail to show up repeatedly over the course of twenty-four hours, you have nothing to worry about. Hairballs are created physiologically, which means that medium and long-haired breeds will experience their symptoms naturally (and quite often, if you don’t brush your cat’s coat).

It is your responsibility to prevent them so that they can’t cause digestive complications such as obstructions –these can be life-threatening.

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Cristina Vulpe PhD

Cristina Vulpe PhD

With a PhD in Veterinary Oncology, Dr. Cristina Vulpe loves researching and writing about the things that she’s passionate about. These range from animal nutrition and welfare to pet behavior, infectious diseases, and parasitology. In her spare time, she’s always in the company of her cat and a good book.

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