Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Posted in: Cat Health - Last Updated: August 15, 2023 - Author: Rebekah Carter
Posted in Cat Health 
Last Updated: March 7, 2022  
Author:  Rebekah Carter
orange and white cat sitting next to a cat brush full of hair

Have you ever been walking through the house and heard your pet cat making an awful sound like they are vomiting and then find the most disgusting ball of hair that your cat just coughed up? While they may be a disgusting thing to find lying around your house, there is no need to be too alarmed.  Many times hairballs are a natural side-effect of grooming habits, and, for the most part, they are nothing to worry about. Once you have figured out that these things that your cat is coughing up are hairballs, there are a few things that you can do to help prevent your cat from having hairballs.

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

People often wonder why cats get hairballs. Cats keep themselves clean by licking with a tongue that has specially designed barbs that act like a comb or brush. These barbs help detangle fur that is matted and, unfortunately, grab loose hair along the way. 

This results in the cat swallowing some of the hairs, which in turn creates the dreaded hairball. It does not happen right away, and typically the loose hair just passes through the intestinal tract and is voided along with stool. Sometimes too much hair is swallowed, and it collects in the stomach, causing a blockage that makes your cat feel very sick. It is because of said blockage that the cat may feel the need to vomit. Usually, once the hairball is cleared, your cat will return to normal and seem like nothing ever happened.

Why Does My Cat Get Hairballs?

  • They are grooming: cats spend somewhere around one-third of their waking hours grooming. Long-haired breeds, such as Maine coons especially have issues with hairballs because the longer hair has more tendency to remain in the stomach, where short hair is more likely to pass on through the digestive tract where it is voided with the cat's stool.
  • They are hunting: A common reason for hairballs is if your cat likes to hunt. Most cats that hunt will usually stick to prey that is very small, like mice or rats, which sometimes they can devour whole, but sometimes they are known to hunt and kill rabbits or squirrels. This type of prey is much larger and has a more developed fur coat that is swallowed by your cat during consumption.

Cats clean larger prey by licking or pulling the fur away from the skin and typically do not try to swallow them whole. A trait mostly observed among the big cats like lions and tigers but is shared by domestic cats as well. Obviously, this will result in the cat swallowing an excessive amount of hair that the stomach just cannot digest. 

Even a well-fed cat will hunt, so you should not be worried that you are doing something wrong or not feeding enough as it is the feline's nature stemming from thousands of years of living in the wild.

  • They are licking the carpet: While it may sound ridiculous, but cats will sometimes feel the need to groom your carpet or area rugs. It is natural for cats to mark their territory, and one of the ways they do that is by spreading their scent through special salivary glands that contain a substance that acts kind of like a personally scented potpourri. It serves as a warning to other cats not to enter the cat's personal space; just like with their own fur or the fur of their fallen enemies, the fibers in the carpet may become loosened by everyday foot traffic and end up swallowed by the cat. If enough of it builds up in the cat's stomach, they likely will end up vomiting it back up.
  • They are eating their toys: There are all kinds of cat toys out there, and the quality in which they are made can vary greatly. Not all toys are created equal, and lesser quality toys can be made of fibers or string that become lodged in your cat's stomach as they play and chew on them. Again cats like to claim their belongings by marking them with their saliva. Their toys are no different. If the toy contains long fibers that simulate hair or strings to entice your cat to play, these things can become a real danger. Especially string can become lodged in the stomach or intestines and cause a blockage that your cat can't clear with vomiting and will become a real threat that can result in serious illness or even death. It is recommended to buy toys that do not contain fibers or strings that can easily become loose during play or chewed upon.
human cleaning up cat hairball vomit

How to tell if your cat may have a hairball

The most obvious sign that your cat has an issue with hairballs is finding the physical hairball itself, but sometimes the signs can be more subtle, and veterinary medicine and a visit may be needed. These are some common signs that your cat may have hairballs.

  • Unproductive retching or vomiting: Signs that your cat may have a hairball are retching or acting like they want to vomit, but nothing comes out. Most of the time, the cat will eventually get the hairball out, but in the meantime, they will be making some concerning noises. It is not usually something to be alarmed about and is a natural way for your cat to relieve themselves of the said hairball. If the hairball does not come up, then it is recommended to have the vets examine the cat.
  • Lethargy: You may notice your cat does not seem to want to play or run around like usual. It can be hard to tell because most cats spend much of the day sleeping anyway, but even when they are awake, they do not seem to want to do much. This is usually a secondary symptom to many other issues.
  • Lack of appetite: If your cat's stomach is full of hair, then it is likely your cat will not want to eat. Firstly, they will already feel full, and secondly, they will feel nauseous because the hairball is obstructing the natural digestive properties of the stomach and intestines.

Cats are prone to fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis), which can become life-threatening very quickly within just a few days. It is a result of the cat not eating, which causes their body to try to utilize its own fat for energy, but cats do not convert fat very well as they are strict carnivores and need a high protein diet to function. The lack of energy from not eating presents in the cat feeling lethargic.

Cats are prone to fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis), which can become life-threatening very quickly within just a few days. It is a result of the cat not eating, which causes their body to try to utilize its own fat for energy, but cats do not convert fat very well as they are strict carnivores and need a high protein diet to function. The lack of energy from not eating presents in the cat feeling lethargic.

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Do hairballs have a health risk?

Most of the time, hairballs are innocent and are expected, especially in long hair cats.   Sometimes hairballs are forgotten about even though they can lead to some pretty serious situations if they are ignored. These are some health risks that you have encountered in your cat who has chronic hairballs.

  • Hepatic lipidosis: Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) is a result of the cat not eating, which causes its body to try to utilize its own fat for energy, but cats do not convert fat very well as they are strict carnivores and need a high protein diet to function.

Fatty liver disease is life-threatening and needs veterinary intervention immediately to help reverse the effects of the disease. If it allowed continue without medication, the cat would become severely dehydrated the liver will shut down, resulting in severe illness and ultimately death.

  • GI Obstruction: An obstruction is anything that blocks the digestive tract and does not allow food to be properly utilized by the body. As food moves through your cat's digestive tract, it is absorbed in different stages and provides nourishment along the way. When a hairball obstructs this natural process, it causes your cat to become very sick. If the blockage does not pass on its own, then your cat must have surgery to remove this hairball.  Sometimes your veterinarian may use edible lubricants that will coat the hairball and help it move the blockage on through your cat's digestive tract.  This will help it become naturally voided in the stool.
  • Upper Airway Obstruction: A different kind of obstruction is one that involves the airway. Sometimes the hairball may be on its way up from the stomach and become lodged in the throat resulting in a blocked airway. This is an incredibly dangerous and emergency in which immediate veterinary attention is recommended. If you can see the hairball and remove it safely by swiping your finger to dislodge it, do so, but you should use extreme caution as a cat that cannot become erratic and cause very serious wounds to you and anyone around it.
grey cat being brushed

FAQs about Hairballs in Cats

Is it normal for cats to get hairballs?

Yes, any cat that grooms itself regularly may have to eventually deal with the occasional hairball. Even though they can be disgusting, it is completely natural for a cat to get hairballs.

Do cats in the wild get hairballs?

There is not a whole lot of literature on the subject, but it suffices to say that any cat that must groom itself may have an issue with hairballs. Feral cats especially may have to confront this issue as they are forced to hunt things like mice, rats, squirrels, and rabbits, which have excessive hair and can cause hairballs to form.

Are there things you can do to prevent hairballs?

There are many things that you can do to help prevent hairballs in cats or at least decrease the number of hairballs that you see.

  • Hair Ball Diets: There are all kinds of commercially sold cat foods that are directly formulated to deal with hairballs in your cat.
  • Hairball Treats: There are specialized supplements and edible lubricants like Laxatone that help with the safe passage of hairballs through the digestive tract.
  • Grooming: Daily brushing with specialized tools and brushes like the Ferminator will help with many of your cat's hairball issues.  These cat hair removal brushes will remove the bulk of loose hair that causes hairballs. If regular brushing isn't an option, then perhaps regular visits to a groomer can help as they can brush or even keep the hair cut short to help keep it from accumulating in the stomach.
cat being tickled under chin

How do you know to let the hairball pass naturally or intervene?

The best way to know that your cat has passed a hairball is to physically see the hairball.  If you notice that your cat is trying to cough up a hairball, it is best to observe them to see if anything is produced. It may take several minutes and a few retches to finally vomit up the hairball.  If your cat does not clear after a few tries and still seems like they are having issues trying to pass the hairball, then it may be necessary to take action.

How can you safely intervene?

The safest and most recommended thing to do is to take your cat to a veterinarian. They are better prepared to deal with hairballs and can prescribe medicines that can safely help your cat pass the hairball. 

If it is an emergency situation, like your cat has a hairball stuck in their airway, you can try to remove the hairball yourself by reaching in and swiping your finger to remove it. veterinary assistance is still the best and safest option.

Why Do Cats Get hairballs: Final Thoughts

Hairballs can be quite a nuisance and sometimes dangerous, but there are things that can be done to help prevent them or at least reduce their frequency. Consult your veterinarian so they can help you figure out what best cat food or supplement may better help keep your cat happy and healthy for many years to come.

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About the author

Rebekah Carter is a dedicated animal lover. Her Savannah cat, Roscoe, has a lot of attitude, while her Maine Coon, Dukino, is full of love. When not writing, she’s looking after her cats and researching ways to help them live their best possible life. Her passion for animals and natural skill for writing led her to pursue pet blogging.