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Cat Hairballs: Vet-Approved Causes, Prevention & Remedies

Genevieve Dugal

By Genevieve Dugal

cat lying near pet brush and hairball

Vet approved

Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Marta Vidal-Abarca

BVSc GPCert (Ophthal) MRCVS (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Does the word “trichobezoar” ring a bell? Besides being a high-scoring Scrabble word, it refers to the unsavory by-product of your cat’s grooming habit: the infamous hairball. Most cat owners are familiar with those little wads of fur that their beloved kitties vomit every once in a while. However, frequent vomiting of hairballs is not normal behavior for cats and should be treated accordingly.

Read on as we discuss hairball causes, prevention, and remedies, so you’ll know what to do the next time that your precious fur baby expels one on your favorite rug.

What Are Hairballs in Cats?

The scientific name for hairballs in cats is trichobezoar, which refers to a moist wad of undigested hair mixed with food, bile, mucus, and other fluids. This unappealing mixture usually takes on a somewhat tubular shape after being forced through the esophagus. Once dry, a hairball can sometimes be mistaken for cat poo due to this cigar-like shape. However, if you look closely, you will notice that it is essentially the same color as your cat’s hair.

Hairballs result from the grooming habits of cats. When cats groom themselves, they use their tongue to remove dead hair from their coat. Their raspy tongue has tiny, backward-facing spines called papillae that catch loose hairs, which are then swallowed.

Since hair is mostly made up of keratin, a fibrous structural protein, it cannot be digested. This is normally not a problem, as the majority of the fur passes through the cat’s digestive system and ends up in the litter box. However, some hair can accumulate in the stomach or intestines and form a mass too large to pass in the stool: a hairball.

young cat sitting on wooden table with hairball
Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Hairballs in Cats?

Cats are experts at hiding their signs of pain, but in the case of hairballs, there are a few obvious signs:

  • Retching: You may notice your cat making repetitive coughing or retching sounds, often followed by attempts to vomit. Usually, the hairball can be expelled, but sometimes, it can stay in the cat’s digestive system. There’s no way to know for sure unless you take your cat to the vet for a checkup.
  • Vomiting: If your cat manages to vomit up the hairball, they should seem to feel better immediately and resume normal behavior. This is what sets hairballs apart from other cases of cat vomiting, which usually result in persistent nausea combined with signs like lethargy and a lack of appetite.

Other signs may indicate the presence of hairballs, such as constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, or frequent attempts to vomit without producing anything. These should not be taken lightly, as they could indicate an intestinal blockage or obstruction, which is a life-threatening emergency.

What Are the Causes of Hairballs in Cats?

Image Credit: Montakan Wannasri, Shutterstock

In general, healthy cats shouldn’t have too many hairball problems. They may vomit one once in a while, but most of their fur should pass through their digestive tract and be eliminated in their feces.

However, while all felines may have to deal with this issue occasionally, some are more prone to it than others due to two main factors:

  • They ingest more hair than normal when grooming. This can be the case if they are overgrooming due to an itchy skin condition. Long-haired cat breeds (such as Persians and Maine Coons) will also ingest more hair. Cats with behavioral issues (stress, anxiety, or boredom) may also overgroom and, therefore, ingest more fur.
  • They have a medical condition affecting their digestive tract. This is normally caused by problems that affect their gastrointestinal motility. Issues can range from inflammatory processes to internal parasites and foreign bodies stuck in their digestive tract.

How Do I Care for a Cat With Hairballs?

First, you need to make sure your cat has no underlying health issues. Then, if your cat gets a clean bill of health from your veterinarian, you can help limit the occurrence of hairballs by implementing a few preventative measures:

  • Regular brushing: Brushing your long-haired cat frequently can make a big difference in the amount of hair that they swallow. Short-haired breeds will also benefit from a good brushing session at least once a week and more often during the shedding season.
  • Dietary adjustments: Certain specialty cat foods are designed to help prevent hairballs. These often contain specific ingredients (like high fiber content) that help move hair through the digestive system. Discuss with your veterinarian if a hairball-control diet might be right for your cat. Interestingly, science has proved that feeding your cat more frequent small meals throughout the day may improve their stomach motility and emptying, which may in turn help to reduce the incidence of hairballs.
  • Increased hydration: Adequate hydration is crucial for overall gastrointestinal health, including the passage of hair through the digestive system. Make sure your cat has access to fresh water at all times, and consider adding wet food to their diet.

Frequently Asked Questions

When Should You Go to the Vet?

Cats that only regurgitate a hairball once a month usually don’t need to be seen by a veterinarian for a thorough checkup. But if your cat vomits hairballs more frequently or if they show other alarming signs (lack of appetite, weight loss, diarrhea, constipation, etc.), you should contact your vet right away.

What Should You Expect at the Vet’s Clinic?

Your veterinarian will begin with a thorough physical exam, assessing your cat’s overall health while palpating the abdomen for any signs of bowel disease or obstruction. They may recommend other tests to look for the underlying causes of your cat’s hairballs, such as a skin exam, X-rays, ultrasound scans, blood tests, and gastrointestinal tests.

male vet examining a cat with stethoscope in clinic
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

Can Hairballs Lead to Intestinal Blockages?

Yes, a hairball that manages to pass into the small intestine can get stuck there, and this is a serious issue that can be fatal to the cat. Surgery is usually the only possible treatment to remove very large hairballs that are blocking the cat’s gastrointestinal tract. Hairballs can also become lodged in your cat’s nasopharynx and esophagus.

Are There Any Alternative or Natural Remedies for Hairballs in Cats?

Home treatments are not appropriate for cats that have frequent hairballs, as an underlying health condition is usually responsible for their formation. However, if your cat does not have frequent hairballs, you can ask your veterinarian to recommend safe home remedies, such as hairball-control gels, nutritional supplements, or commercial hairball treats.


While the occasional vomited wad of hair is common in healthy cats, frequent hairballs can be a reason for concern. They can be caused by abnormal fur ingestion during grooming or by medical conditions affecting their digestive tract. Either way, excessive numbers of hairballs can lead to serious health problems.

Therefore, if your feline companion experiences persistent hairball issues or if you notice other alarming signs like frequent retching, vomiting, loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing, trouble breathing, constipation, or lethargy, you should seek advice from your veterinarian without delay.

Featured Image Credit: RJ22, Shutterstock

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