A cat stares at his human cleaning up a hairball.

That dreaded hack is something most cat owners don’t want to hear from their furry friends, because they know the end result is almost always a mess. At one point or another, though, the majority of cats will experience this loud and yucky ritual. The hacking cough we are describing is most notably associated with gagging or vomiting up a wad of undigested fur, also known as a hairball. Some cats may suffer from these, dare we say, disgusting oddities more than others, especially if they have long hair.

Hairballs in cats are something we often get asked about here at Animal Family Veterinary Care Center. Cat owners who are new to the hairball want to know if they’re normal or a cause for concern. Don’t worry, we have you covered (and not in undigested hair). Let’s explore this phenomenon in cats and what you can do to prevent future hairballs:

All About Hairballs

A hairball, also called a trichobezoar, is an undigested wad of fur, food, and stomach fluids. As you probably have witnessed, cats spend a large part of the day self-grooming. The loosened fur sometimes gets swallowed, and most of the time passes swiftly through the digestive tract. If a cat has long hair or grooms more than normal, however, they will accumulate more fur, which is harder to digest and forms into an oblong bundle in the stomach. 

If the hairball remains, this will cause your cat to vomit it up. During this episode, they may gack, hack, and cough. They also seem to move backward and lift their neck, in an attempt to get the hairball dislodged and out of their system. Larger hairballs tend to become round, like a soft ball. Hairballs are considered normal when they only occur occasionally. There are cases in which hairballs can become so large they require surgical removal, but this is rare.

Longer-haired cats tend to have a greater number of hairballs throughout their lives. Cats who have certain forms of stress, anxiety, and phobias might over-groom as a way to provide relief, so they might shed more and/or develop hairballs. 

Symptoms of Hairballs

The most obvious sign your pet is dealing with hairballs is that telltale retching and wad of fur, usually accompanied by stomach fluids and food. Sometimes, hairballs can pose a more serious problem for your cat, including lack of appetite, constipation, diarrhea, and lethargy. If there is a blockage due to the size of the hairball, your cat may not be able to eat or keep food down without regurgitation.

If your cat is experiencing more than the occasional hairball or has other signs of illness or distress, please contact us for an examination.

Tips to Minimize Hairballs

The occasional hairball without any lasting effect on the cat is nothing to worry about. Still, cleaning up a mess of yuck is never any fun. Try the following tips to minimize the amount of hairballs you have to clean:

  • Brush your cat out daily to remove excess hair before it ends up in the stomach.
  • Make sure they are getting enough water by regularly filling water bowls throughout the house. 
  • Look for hairball lubricants or hairball reducing treats and food at your local supply store, or ask us for recommendations.

If you would like more information about hairballs in cats, or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact our team.