A young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kitten
Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs? When Pet Owners Should Be Concerned

By: Brianna Gunter

A gray and white cat licks his face on a pink background.

It goes without saying—the first time you see a cat hack up a hairball can be alarming. All of a sudden your kitty crouches, makes gagging noises, and retches out a yucky mass of hair and wet stuff. Is this normal, and why on earth does it happen?

The good news is, aside from being visibly distressing, the occasional cat hairball is often nothing to worry about. However, they can be a sign of over-grooming or issues with your cat’s digestive tract. In addition to learning what hairballs are and why cats get them in the first place, it’s important for all cat owners to know the signs of potential health issues and when to call your veterinarian.

What are hairballs in cats?

Hairballs are an unpleasant side effect of what is actually a clean habit. As you’ve probably already observed numerous times with your own cat, felines groom themselves regularly by licking their fur. Their tongues contain small barbs that assist with this by pulling up loose, old hair ready for shedding. Cats swallow this fur, after which it normally passes through their digestive tracts and is eventually excreted.

However, sometimes fur stays behind in your kitty’s system and accumulates. This buildup of undigested hair may then be vomited out if it can’t be passed normally. Voila! A hairball appears on your rug. Contrary to what the name may suggest, cat hairballs are usually not ball-shaped at all. Instead, they are typically long, cylindrical wads of matted fur that may be accompanied by stomach bile (which may appear clear or slightly brown and opaque).

According to veterinarian Dr. Joanna Guglielmino in an article for the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, “At first glance, a hairball can be confused with feces. But if you're courageous enough to examine it closely, you'll discover that its odor is not really foul, only mildly fetid, and it's apt to be the same color as your cat's fur.”

Bonus knowledge

Fun fact: the scientific term for a cat hairball is “trichobezoar.” The word combines the Greek word “trich” (hair) and the term “bezoar,” which refers to any hard, indigestible mass found in the digestive systems of certain animals. Some medieval and ancient cultures believed bezoars to have magical properties, especially when used as poison antidotes.

How often do cats get hairballs?

There’s a lot of modern debate over whether cat hairballs should be considered a normal part of your cat’s grooming and digestive behavior or a sign of dysfunction. Depending on where you look, some veterinary sources state that relatively frequent hairballs (once a week or so) are normal, while others suggest once or twice a year is when cat owners can relax. But as the Journal of Feline Medicine notes, no definitive studies have been done concerning the incidence or frequency of hairballs in pet cats.

So, if your cat gets hairballs, it’s always a good idea to let your veterinarian know.

“Even though vomiting hairballs can seem pretty normal, vomiting isn’t ever really normal,” explains Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Caroline Wilde. “If a cat vomits hairballs, the cat’s veterinarian should be aware so they can judge whether or not it is concerning, and if indicated, can rule out any underlying cause.”

When to call your veterinarian

While any hairball instance is worth bringing up with your cat’s veterinarian at his next appointment, any increase in the frequency or patterns of hairballs deserves more immediate attention. Likewise, go ahead call your veterinarian if you notice any of the following in relation to your cat’s hairballs:

  • Hairball occurrence suddenly increases
  • Hairball consistency is different (Wilde says, “Like if it’s normally hair and suddenly it’s mostly water and some hair.”)
  • Hairball color changes
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Changes in appetite
  • The presence of blood
  • Cat appears to be in pain
  • Constipation (empty litter box)
  • Cat stops grooming or changes grooming patterns

Remember that the presence of hairballs may vary among different cats, even in the same household. Always get individual hairball issues checked out in each cat, even if one has already had underlying health issues ruled out by a veterinarian.

Health conditions and hairballs in cats

More research is needed on the exact health conditions that can predispose certain cats to hairballs. But according to Wilde, a variety of factors may be to blame.

“Anything that causes increased shedding or hair loss, or slows intestinal motility can cause increased hairballs,” she says. “Decreased intestinal motility can be caused by many things, including, but not limited to, dehydration, inflammation anywhere along the intestinal tract, and cancer.”

Wilde also notes that renal disease, diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and pancreatitis may be the underlying causes behind dehydration and intestinal inflammation.

Before you start worrying that your pet has a major illness, hairballs may also be the side effect of less serious conditions.

“Increased hair loss can be due to over-grooming, which can be caused by behavioral issues (stress, anxiety), external parasites, and allergies,” Wilde notes. “[Cats] can also lick an area that is painful. For example, arthritis may cause a cat to lick at its joints, and a UTI can cause a cat to lick its lower abdomen.”

Cat hairball treatments and prevention

Always consult with your veterinarian before starting any new at-home treatment with your pet. Depending on the severity and frequency of hairballs in your cat, you may have a few options at your disposal:

  • Cat foods high in fiber
  • Pet-approved laxatives or gastric lubricants
  • Dietary supplements

“Your veterinarian can advise the best strategy for each cat, as cats can have very diverse nutritional needs,” Wilde says.

Taking steps to prevent hairballs in cats will also help. Proper grooming can go a long way, especially when it comes to cats with dense or longer-haired coats. Try brushing your cat daily or making regular pet grooming appointments. If your cat is particularly prone to hairballs and no underlying medical causes are found, your veterinarian may also prescribe a special cat food with hairball control formula.

To learn more about cat grooming, check out Why Is My Cat Shedding So Much?

A dog and cat snuggle

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Welcome to the Trupanion blog. A place to celebrate pets, pet health and medical insurance for cats and dogs.

This blog is designed to be a community where pet owners can learn and share. The views expressed in each post are the opinion of the author and not necessarily endorsed by Trupanion. Always consult your veterinarian for professional advice.

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