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Can a Cat Choke on Hairballs? Feline Health Facts & FAQs

Cassandra Kyser

By Cassandra Kyser

Hairballs are no fun for cats or their owners. Why do kitties always cough up hairballs on carpeting or your bed but never on easier-to-clean tiled flooring? Watching your cat struggle to hack up a chunk of hair is distressing. If you’ve ever wondered if your cat can choke on a hairball, the answer is “most likely not.”

Your cat may struggle for a little bit to get a stubborn hairball out, but the odds that they’ll require your intervention are slim. However, cats can choke on other small objects—think Legos, small craft supplies, tiny buttons—so it’s important to know what to do if that ever occurs. Learn more about cat hairballs, ways to reduce them, and how to help a choking cat.

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What Do Cat Hairballs Look Like?

Cat hairballs are not a pleasant sight! You may not know what to look for if you are a first-time cat owner. At first glance, a cat hairball may resemble a piece of cat poop: brown, wet, and tubular-shaped. But a hairball doesn’t smell like poop. When you pick it up, you will see that it’s a tightly compacted wad of cat fur.

cat vomiting
Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock

Are Cat Hairballs Normal?

Feline hairballs are normal to an extent. A hairball every week or two is normal and typically not a cause for concern. You should contact your vet if your cat experiences more frequent hairballs. Vomiting, with or without fur, can signify an illness or medical condition. Some cats will need medicine or special food to help them control hairballs.

How Do I Stop My Cat From Getting Hairballs?

Cats lick and swallow their fur every time they groom themselves. If you’ve observed your cat for any length of time, you’ll notice that they are fastidious about cleanliness. You may never be able to completely stop your cat from getting hairballs, but you can help reduce them. Frequently brushing your cat keeps hair out of its stomach.

Compulsive grooming in cats is called psychogenic alopecia. Regular grooming sessions can become obsessive if your cat is bored, anxious, or has an allergy or mites. Cats with psychogenic alopecia may groom themselves to the point of developing bald patches. See your vet if you’re worried about your cat’s grooming habits.

grey cat licking its paw
Image By: michal dziekonski, Unsplash

How Do I Know If My Cat Has a Hairball or Is Choking?

Your cat coughing up a hairball can catch you off guard. You might wonder if you are witnessing a normal hairball event or a medical emergency. Coughing up a hairball usually happens quickly, in a matter of several seconds. It’s also a noisy event, accompanied by retching noises or an “ack, ack, ack” sound.

Prolonged coughing, gagging with no noise, and distressed or labored breathing can all be signs of choking.

What to Do If Your Cat Is Choking: Step by step instructions

You’ll need to take swift action if you’ve determined that your cat is choking and not coughing up a hairball. But stay calm, as your kitty needs you to have a clear head.

  • If someone else is with you, ask them to call your vet or the closest animal emergency clinic while you tend to your cat.
  • What you do next will depend on your cat’s behavior.
  • If you can pick up your cat and open its mouth, check for any objects you can quickly remove. If you aren’t confident you can grab it, don’t dig around in their mouth. You don’t want to push the object further down their throat.
  • If you see a long string hanging out of your cat’s mouth, like yarn thread or tinsel—Don’t pull on it. It may be stuck inside their body, and pulling it out can cause internal damage.
  • If your cat is running around or won’t open its mouth for you, the best course of action is to wrap them in a towel or blanket and head to the vet.
  • If your cat is not breathing, you’ll need to do the Heimlich maneuver for cats.
  • If your cat expels the object at home and begins breathing, follow your vet’s instructions. You may need to bring your cat in immediately or make an appointment during regular clinic hours.


Cats will gag and noisily cough up hairballs but rarely choke. Consult your vet if your cat has more than one hairball per week. Most cats that choke will do so after swallowing small objects like pen caps, pom poms, string, and pieces of plastic wrap. All cat owners should know how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on cats.

Featured Image Credit: Montakan Wannasri, Shutterstock

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