Cats and hairballs
There is no alarm on this planet that will get someone out of bed faster than the sound of a cat coughing up a hairball on the bedroom carpeting in the middle of the night.
Cats and hairballs, hairballs and cats. It’s just one of those unfortunate facts of cat ownership, right? Having a cat just means finding that occasional slimy glob of fur and stomach juices on the nicest, most-expensive flooring in your home. Or does it?
Are hairballs “normal” for cats? How many hairballs are too many hairballs? Are hairballs ever dangerous? Is there anything you can do to prevent hairballs? Read this post for answers to all of these questions and more.
What is a hairball?
A hairball is both exactly what it sounds like, and not what it sounds like at all.
A hairball is basically a swallowed clump of hair that a cat brings up by vomiting. It’s not just hair, though, because it’s got digestive fluids and bile mixed in, making it, shall we say...juicy. The scientific term for hairball is “trichobezoar.” “Tricho” (pronounced “trick-o”) means hair, and “bezoar” (pronounced “BEE-zor”) just means a hunk of indigestible stuff that collects in the digestive tract, which is exactly what a hairball is.
A hairball is not a ball. It should be called “hair sausage,” because a hairball is typically cylindrical. It gets squeezed into this shape as the bundle makes its unhappy way from a cat’s stomach to her mouth through the esophagus, which is a narrow tube.
When you first see a hairball you might think your cat has missed the litterbox. Even a light-colored cat can produce a dark hairball, because the swallowed fur might be darkened by the color of whatever your cat has eaten, and various gastric juices, like green bile.
Sometimes, the only way to tell the difference between a hairball and feces is by smelling, not something I’d recommend as a hobby. Feces smell worse, in case you wanted to know.
(If your cat is chronically vomiting read this post, "Why does my cat keep throwing up?")
Why do cats get hairballs?
Cats groom by “combing” their fur with their own tongues (or a friend’s). A cat’s tongue is covered in little hooks called papillae.
The hooks look exactly like cat claws, and have sharp little tips, as you probably already knew if you’ve ever been licked by a cat. The tongue-combs are surprisingly effective at untangling mats and also really easy to get hair out of, as one scientist proved by making a cat-tongue brush on a 3D printer from a scanned image of a real cat tongue. You can see how easy it is to remove hair on this scientist’s tongue-brush model here.
But sometimes a cat unintentionally swallows some hair anyway. The feline digestive tract is designed to pass a certain amount of fur. The majority of swallowed dead hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with absolutely no problem.
And sometimes it doesn’t. Cat fur, like our hair, and like the papillae on a cat’s tongue, is made up of a tough, insoluble protein called keratin. Keratin is not digestible. It doesn’t break down the way food does in the GI tract – either it finds its way out in the feces, or it gradually gathers up into a damp clump.
If the hunk of juicy old fur gets big enough, a cat will likely bring it up from his stomach by vomiting. Voila! A hairball.
Do all cats get hairballs?
No. All cats do not produce hairballs.
Let’s talk about the cats who don’t tend to get hairballs first.
Kittens don’t tend to get hairballs because they aren’t very adept groomers yet, and thus aren’t licking and swallowing a lot of fur.
And plenty of furred cats don’t get hairballs either. Veterinarian Martha Cannon polled cat guardians in her cats-only veterinary practice and published her findings in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 43% of owners of short-haired cats and 24% of owners of long-haired cats said their cats had never had a hairball. A fairly large percentage of her cat owners said their kitties (31% of her short-haired, and 21% of her long-haired patients) only had one hairball a year.
Which brings us to the question of which cats tend to get hairballs.
Armchair scientists everywhere already know the answer: long-haired cats. In fact, if Dr. Cannon’s casual poll is accurate, hairballs are roughly twice as common in long-haired cats as in short-haired cats.
Hairballs are more frequent during seasons when cats shed their coats. Hairballs are also more common in cats who groom compulsively. It’s simple math: the more hair that gets on a cat tongue – whether it’s because the hair is longer, because it’s coming loose due to shedding, or because a cat is licking herself more – the more hairballs there are going to be.
How many hairballs are “too many” hairballs?
If your cat is experiencing more than one hairball per week, try some of the solutions discussed below, and if they don’t work, contact your veterinarian for advice.
Are hairballs dangerous?
Most hairballs are only dangerous to nice rugs and bare feet in the dark of night.
But some hairballs can be very dangerous, life-threateningly dangerous.
Hairballs become a problem when they become too large to pass through the narrow sphincters (the rings of muscle that guard openings between tubes in the body) leading from the esophagus to the stomach or from the stomach to the intestines.
Very uncommonly, a hairball gets past the sphincter leading to the small intestine and gets wedged in the intestine, causing a blockage. All of these possibilities are very serious and can be fatal.
How do you know when you’re looking at the dangerous kind of hairball?
Typically, when you’re witnessing a cat vomiting up a hairball, you’ll see your cat crouch, extend his neck, and hack, gag, and retch. This typically produces a hairball right away.
If your cat is hacking, gagging, retching continually or intermittently, does not produce a hairball, and appears to be in distress, this is an emergency situation.
Other signs to look for include:
- Lack of appetite
Surgery may be the only way to remove the impacted hairball to save your cat’s life.
How can I help prevent my cat from getting hairballs?
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If you have a hairball-prone cat, you must groom your cat frequently, preferably every day.
There are some great tools out there. I can personally recommend the FURminator line of products. The FURminator does not remove living hair – it only “catches” and drags out already shed hair that is collecting on your cat. You will be astonished at how much loose, dead hair this product removes.
I have personally only used the product intended for shorthaired animals, but FURminator also makes a product designed for long-haired cats, too. You can purchase the FURminator for Long-Haired Cats here, or the FURminator for Short-Haired Cats here.
You’ll probably want an everyday kind of brush, too. Many cats enjoy the attention and pleasure of being gently brushed. This inexpensive slicker brush by HATELI is self-cleaning and very easy on skin and fur.
Slicker brushes with plain pins (no little knobs or balls on the tips) are really effective at removing loose hair and knots on long-haired cats, especially. I think every long-haired cat owner should try this type. I wasn’t convinced until I did at how easily the plain pins make their way through tangles. This one by Burt’s Bees is made in the USA and made of eco-friendly materials.
Burt’s Bees makes a nice two-sided comb, too, which is also good for detangling long-haired cats.
Some cats enjoy being groomed with a pair of deshedding gloves, like these by DELOMO. They’re basically just a pair of gloves with little silicone nubs on the fingers and palms. The hair clings to the silicone and it’s satisfying to find yourself with a palmful of fur that would have otherwise ended up on your furniture, or in a hairball.
When all else fails, hire a professional groomer
If your cat does not enjoy being groomed by you, and you do not enjoy fighting with your beloved cat to keep her well-groomed, you may have to engage the services of a professional groomer.
Many traditional dog groomers have kitty clients as well – ask the groomer you’re considering if she has experience working with cats. Consider a mobile groomer, who will come to your house with a fully equipped van. Your cat will be groomed in the van while it is parked outside your home, and returned to you immediately. This option may be less-stressful for your cat than at a traditional grooming facility because he’ll be the only client in the van and because he won’t have to wait his turn in a cage amidst barking dogs and other pets.
You might be able to get away with a professional groom once every six months.
Other options for hairball-prone cats
Your vet may recommend a gentle lubricant like Laxatone, a tuna-flavored petroleum product, to coat the hair and allow it to pass. You place a half to a full teaspoon of this product on your cat’s paw or nose with the hope that she’ll lick the flavorful paste off. You may have to give this product to your cat every day for two to three days in a row, and then taper to a quarter- to a half-teaspoon two to three times per week.
You can also consider adding a tiny bit (about a teaspoon) of fish oil, corn oil, or olive oil to your cat’s wet food to help ease the way for hair in the digestive tract. Ask your vet before trying this solution.
There are also commercial cat foods on the market that claim to prevent hairballs, including Blue Buffalo Hairball Control Dry Cat Food, Royal Canin Hairball Care, Purina ONE Hairball Formula Adult Dry Cat Food. These are high-fiber formulas supposedly designed to encourage hair to pass through the digestive tract. Do they work?
There was a small, short study involving 21 long- and short-haired cats that was designed to answer the question as to whether adding fiber helped cats poop out their hairballs. The cats were first fed a low-fiber diet, and then were slowly transitioned to either a medium-fiber or a high-fiber diet.
The long-haired cats had up to 113% more fur in their poop when they were fed the high-fiber diet. But the diet didn’t seem to cause short-haired cats to poop out more fur. Does that mean it didn’t work for short-haired cats? No – because the study didn’t determine whether the extra fiber helped prevent hairball formulation in the first place. More work in this area has to be done before we fully understand the role of fiber in a cat's diet.
Are these special diets worth a try if your cat is really suffering from chronic hairballs and you’ve done everything you can to “groom away” her loose fur? Only you and your veterinarian can decide that together.
When is a hairball not a hairball?
If hairballs weren't bad enough, there are medical conditions that masquerade themselves as hairballs. And you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Feline allergic bronchitis (“cat asthma”) looks for all the world like a cat coughing up a hairball.Parasites like heartworms and lungworms, can also cause coughing that looks like a cat with a hairball problem.
Fleas and allergies can cause itchiness, which can lead to increased grooming, and can, in turn, cause hairballs that wouldn’t otherwise be formed.
And there are other diseases that can prevent a perfectly ordinary hairball from moving through the digestive tract, including inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal cancer. Cats who get treatment for gastrointestinal diseases often see a significant reduction in hairball vomiting.
If your cat is suffering from chronic hairballs, or appears to be suffering from chronic hairballs, consult a veterinarian.
Do wild cats get hairballs?
All cat species get hairballs, according to Letitia Fanucchi, an animal behaviorist at Washington State University.
In fact, in 2015 vets at Colorado State surgically removed a four-pound hairball from the stomach of Arthur, an African lion at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado.
Another four-pounder was surgically removed from a tiger at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation center in Clearwater, Florida.
I guess a cat is a cat is a cat.
The last Friday in April is National Hairball Awareness Day. It’s not a celebration exactly…but it is an opportunity to call attention to this important problem that many cats and their loving guardians face.
Put your party hats on and invite your friends.
Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!
 “A Hairy Dilemma.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 May 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/hairy-dilemma.
 “The Danger OF HAIRBALLS.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 21 May 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/danger-hairballs.
 “A Hairy Dilemma.”
 Flowers, Amy. “Hairballs in Cats: Causes, Symptoms, and Remedies.” WebMD, WebMD, 25 July 2020, pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/what-to-do-about-hairballs-in-cats#1.
 “The Danger OF HAIRBALLS.”
 Cannon, Martha. “HAIR BALLS IN CATS A Normal Nuisance or a Sign That Something Is Wrong?” Sagepub.com, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 2013, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.882.6044&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
 “Laxatone®.” Laxatone® | Vetoquinol USA, www.vetoquinolusa.com/content/laxatone#tab_section_2.
 Weber, Mickaël, et al. “Influence of the Dietary Fibre Levels on Faecal Hair Excretion after 14 Days in Short and LONG-HAIRED Domestic Cats.” Veterinary Medicine and Science, John Wiley and Sons Inc., 7 July 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5645811/.
 Nicholas, Jason. “Hairballs in Cats – Nuisance or More Concerning Problem?” Preventive Vet, 5 Aug. 2021, www.preventivevet.com/cats/are-hairballs-normal-for-cats.
 Langley, Liz. “Do Big Cats Get Hairballs?” Animals, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/animals-lions-cats-health-pets.