Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs in cats may indicate a larger problem.

Many people with cats are familiar with the issue of hairballs. The squishy feeling when you accidentally step on one in the middle of the night or the upsetting sounds that your kitty makes as she brings one up are both well-known and dreaded aspects of cat-ownership.

What Are Hairballs?

The scientific name for a hairball is trichobezoar. Tricho means hair and bezoar means an accumulation of indigestible material forming a lump in the digestive tract. Bezoars used to be thought to have magical properties, including the ability to act as antidotes to certain poisons.

What Causes Hairballs in Cats?

Cats are built to swallow and digest fur. Rough barbs on the tongue all point toward the cat's throat, so anything that is caught on them is swallowed. This adaptation evolved to help cats get all of the nutrition they could from their food; even their prey's fur is often consumed after hunting.

Grooming is an important task for a cat as well. It allows them to clean dirt, old hair, and foreign material from themselves and each other. It also presents lots of opportunities for swallowing hair.

The majority of fur that cats ingest passes through the digestive tract and ends up in the feces; it is not a normal part of cat physiology to cough back up undigested pellets, like owls do. However, sometimes the fur builds up to a point that it can't pass out of the stomach into the small intestine. Eventually, depending on the size of the hairball, how rapidly it forms, and how sensitive the stomach is, the hairball comes back up, looking more like a sausage than a ball because of its passage up through the long narrow food pipe, the esophagus.

Sometimes the cat does not bring up the hairball but only some undigested food that isn't able to move past the hair in the stomach. This may occur several times until either the hairball is able to move along or it finally does come up.

Are Hairballs Normal in Cats?

Occasional hairballs in cats can be normal, especially in long-haired cats or those that groom long-haired housemates. However, many veterinarians feel that if the vomiting occurs more than once or twice a month, the excess hairballs may be associated with another internal problem. There are a number of possible underlying causes that may lead to an abnormal amount of hairball vomiting, including:

Uncommon but Serious Complications of Hairballs in Cats

Occasionally, a hairball can lead to serious health problem. Some examples of that include:

Sometimes people mistake coughing for hairball retching. If your cat is making a coughing noise routinely and not bringing up a hairball, undigested food, or food when she does it, see your veterinarian immediately to diagnose the cough.

Treatments for Hairballs in Cats

The treatment for your cat's hairball problem depends on its cause. Your veterinarian may need to run some tests and develop a treatment plan for your cat based on the results.

If your cat simply has occasional hairballs because she is long-haired or loves to groom her housemates and your veterinarian does not believe that there is any underlying GI problem, the following treatments might help:

Don't assume that all hairball vomiting is normal. Check with your veterinarian to determine whether your cat should have further testing.

You May Also Like These Articles:

Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats

Digestive System Infections

Flea Control for Cats

Common Cancers in Cats

How To Manage Pain In Cats

Ringworm in Cats

Feliway - A Useful Tool to Help Treat Stress in Cats

Pica in Cats: Why Cats Eat Strange Things

Psychogenic Alopecia in Cats

Feline Mites

Foods Toxic to Cats - Slideshow

Pet Insurance: Peace of Mind for Your Cat\'s Health

Disclaimer: This website is not intended to replace professional consultation, diagnosis, or treatment by a licensed veterinarian. If you require any veterinary related advice, contact your veterinarian promptly. Information at is exclusively of a general reference nature. Do not disregard veterinary advice or delay treatment as a result of accessing information at this site. Just Answer is an external service not affiliated with