The Danger of Cat Hairballs: What You Need to Know

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Hairballs aren’t the most pleasant things for a cat owner to have to deal with. Not only does it sound pretty awful to hear your pet hacking up this lump of fur, but then they go and leave it on the floor and walk off. Dealing with the odd hairball here and there is fine and a normal part of cat ownership. But, have you ever considered what is actually going on here and whether your cat may bring up more hairballs than they should?

A large hairball ( known as a  trichobezoar) can cause a blockage in a cat’s intestinal tract and cause your cat to choke to death.

Hairballs are going to happen. We can’t stop them but we can keep an eye on how often they are produced and whether our cats struggle to bring them up. Ignoring the issue could lead to unseen medical issues with simple fixes. At their worst, ignored hairball issues could lead to impaction and even death. So, it is important to get a better understanding of these hairball cause and dangers and when to intervene with treatments. Let’s start with the basics.

What exactly is a cat hairball?

A cat hairball is just that, a ball of hair that develops in your cat’s stomach that they then regurgitate. These cylindrical masses rise from the stomach periodically following grooming. Most of the time, the cat can pass this up with no problem and suffer no ill effects. But, as you will see in this guide, there are also times where cats end up with too much hair or excessive hairball production.

Why do cats produce hairballs?

Hairballs are the result of grooming habits. Cats lick themselves to stay clean and deal with any problems in their fur. But, the cat’s tongue is rough. You will know this from when they lick you. This has its benefits for grooming each other as they can remove unwanted items from the fur and can easily catch hold of dead hair.

The problem is that the cat then swallows this hair during the grooming process. Small amounts of this hair will pass through their digestive system with little problem. You will see below how their diet and extra aids can ease this process. But, larger quantities can collect within the cat’s stomach, forming this ball of matted hair. The best thing for the cat to do is regurgitate to pass it back up. It isn’t dissimilar to wild birds bringing up pellets of fur from their kills. It seems unpleasant to us but functional for the animal.

How often should a cat bring up hairballs?

It is normal for a cat to bring up a hairball once or twice a week. This is a sign that their body can deal with the excess hair naturally. If your cat throws up the hair and goes about their day with no ill-effect then there isn’t anything to worry about. But, as we will discuss further below, there may be times where there are additional side-effects or where your cat struggles with the quantity of hair.

Also, don’t forget that the frequency of hairball production can vary depending on the breed of cat. Long-haired breeds, such as Persians have a lot more hair to deal with. They are more likely to pull off strands of dead hair and those strands and longer and more likely to tangle in the stomach. You may notice that the hair of these cats is more noticeable around the house from shedding too. It gets everywhere.

My cat is producing many more hairballs than they did as a kitten, is something wrong?

Not necessarily. It helps to get a better idea of the frequency of those hairballs and any additional issues when cats throw them up. Typically, you will find that kittens don’t do this so often because they don’t groom themselves to the same extent. They may lick themselves a little, but could be more reliant on you for grooming in the early stages of their life. Eventually, they will learn how to groom themselves all-over with better results – which unfortunately means a higher likelihood of swallowing hair.

Can cat hairballs get stuck?

This is a possibility. Most cats will pass hairballs very quickly. They will gag or wretch, and you will soon get used to the precise sounds that they make during this process. Developing an ear for these noises helps if you are out of the room and hear something strange. Then the hair will come out and they will move on – leaving you to handle the mess.

But, there may be times where they seem to gag a little more noisily or wretch for longer. They may be struggling to pass the hairball and could choke. If this continues for too long and the cat starts to get distressed, take them to see a vet. There may be a blockage that they can’t handle on their own.

Can cat hairballs cause vomiting or diarrhoea?

We often use the term vomiting when talking about the action of regurgitating a hairball. This isn’t entirely accurate. Healthy cats passing normal hairball will bring up the hair with some digestive juices but not actually vomit any other stomach contents. This is why it is important to take note of when there is any sign of cats vomiting while retching. There may be a stomach complaint or they may have a blockage caused by a hairball that won’t pass.

Some cats that can’t pass hairballs may also show symptoms at the other end of the digestive system through constipation or diarrhoea. Keep an eye on your pet and see whether they are acting lethargic or disinterested in their food. This could be a further sign of gastric distress. You can try some of the treatments below and go and see a vet if the situation doesn’t improve.

Cat hairballs can be deadly

If a cat goes on gagging and retching without any help, they could end up dealing with a life-threatening blockage in their throat. An increased frequency of hairballs may also be a sign of an underlying condition within the gastrointestinal tract where it is difficult for cats to pass the hair normally. If untreated, this could pose a risk to life. These masses are called trichobezoar and require surgical intervention.  

Excessive hairball production could also be the result of psychological issues.

If there is no clear sign of gastrointestinal distress, there could be a psychological issue here. Excessive grooming is one way for cats to deal with stress. They will lick their fur far more than is necessary and end up ingesting too much. They may not struggle to pass the hairballs or show any physical distress, but it is still important to deal with any possible problems to reduce that compulsion to groom.

Take a look at your cat’s routine and their interactions with other members of the family. Is there some trigger somewhere that is stressing them out? Or, perhaps there has been a change in your routine. It isn’t uncommon for cats to get stressed after moving house. Excessive grooming and hairball production could occur then.

How can I help my cat when they struggle with hairballs?

As was mentioned above, the best course of action is always to seek professional help from a vet. They can figure out where the blockage is and perform the right procedures to remove it. In the worst cases, this could involve surgical intervention. They are also equipped to give your cat a check-up to see why the hairball became a problem in the first place. Resist the temptation to try and handle the hairball yourself or force the cat to throw up. This can stress them out or damage their throat.

What does hairball medicine do?

You can use gels that lubricant the digestive tract to help hairballs pass through if your cat produces a lot of them. Some may also help to improve coat quality to minimise hair loss. Look out for nice flavours to encourage your cat to eat them.

Are there any natural remedies for hairballs?

The problem with some medicines and treatments is that they contain petrolatum. Some natural alternatives avoid this substance and often use some combination of elm bark, marshmallow root, papaya, and psyllium seed. Check the ingredients and methods of any product before you buy. 

Editors Pick: 12 Natural Home Remedies for Cat Hairballs

What else can I do to prevent excessive cat hairballs?

Aside from looking into those medical and psychological issues, you can also reconsider your cat’s grooming regime. If you can take greater responsibility for handling the dead hair in your cat’s coat through regular brushing, this reduces the chance of them licking it off and forming hairballs. Also, consider trimming the coat of longer cats so it can’t tangle in the stomach so much.

Another option is to change their diet. A fibre-rich diet can help with hairballs and better gastrointestinal health. Some brands even have “hairball” formulas.

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How to deal with hairballs to help your cat.

In short, while hairballs aren’t much fun to deal with, it is important to pay more attention to their frequency and the response of your cat. Healthy hairball production is normal. Excessive hairball production is manageable with dietary, grooming, and psychological aids. Impacted hairballs (trichobezoar) need immediate treatment. Understand the differences to provide the best care.