Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

By Sara Ochoa, DVM May 31, 2019

First you hear your cat make an awful sound like they are vomiting. Then you find the most disgusting ball of hair lying on the floor. Well, what has just happened is your cat coughing up a hairball. Yes, hairballs are disgusting. But, there is no need to be too alarmed -hairballs are a natural side effect of grooming, and for the most part they are benign. In this article, we will discuss what to do when your cat gets hairballs and how to prevent future hairballs.

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Cats keep themselves clean by licking with a tongue that has specially designed barbs. The barbs act like a comb or brush that helps untangle fur that is matted and also grabs loose hairs along the way. This results in the cat swallowing some of the fur, which in turn creates the dreaded hairball. Typically the loose hair just passes through the intestinal tract and is voided along with the stool. But when too much hair is swallowed, it collects in the stomach and causes a blockage that makes your cat feel very sick. To relieve the blockage, your cat will feel the need to vomit. Once the hairball is cleared, cats usually return to normal and act as if nothing ever happened.

Reasons Cats Get Hairballs

  • Hunting and eating prey

A common cause of hairballs is hunting. Most cats that hunt will usually stick to prey that is very small like mice, which they can usually devour whole. But cats are also known to hunt and kill animals even larger such as rabbits and squirrels. This type of prey is much bigger 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 they typically do not try to swallow them whole. This is a trait mostly observed among big cats like lions and tigers, but it is shared by domestic cats as well. Obviously, this results in the cat swallowing an excessive amount of hair which the stomach simply cannot digest. Even a well-fed cat will hunt so you shouldn’t be worried that you’re doing something wrong or not feeding enough. iIt is the felines’ nature stemming from thousands of years of living in the wild.

  • Grooming

Cats spend somewhere around one third of their waking hours grooming. Long-haired cats especially, have issues with hairballs. The longer hair has more of a tendency to remain in the stomach, whereas short hair is more likely to pass through the digestive tract along with the cat's stool.

  • Licking Carpet

Licking carpet may sound ridiculous, but cats will sometimes feel the need to groom your carpet or area rugs. Naturally cats want to mark their territory, and one of the ways they do that is by spreading their scent through special salivary glands. The glands contain a substance that acts kind of like a personally scented potpourri to warn other cats to not enter their personal space. Similar to their own fur or the fur of their prey, the fibers in the carpet may become loosened by everyday foot traffic and end up being swallowed by the cat. If enough of the carpet fibers build up in the cat's stomach, then they will end up being vomited out.

  • Toys

There are all kinds of cat toys out there, and their quality 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 the cat to play, then these things can become a real danger. This is especially true if the string gets lodged in the cat’s stomach or intestines, causing a blockage that can’t be cleared by vomiting. This 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 when chewed upon.

Signs A 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, in which case veterinary intervention is recommended.

  • Unproductive retching/vomiting

A sign that a cat may have a hairball is retching or acting like he or she wants to vomit, but nothing comes out. Most of the time, your cat will eventually get the hairball out while making some concerning noises along the way. This is usually not something to be too worried about since vomiting is a natural way for your cat to relieve the hairball. If the hairball does not come out, however, then it is recommended to have a veterinarian examine the cat.

  • Lethargy

You may notice your cat doesn’t 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 if they don't seem to want to do much even when they are awake, this is usually a secondary symptom to our next sign.

  • Lack of appetite

If their stomach is full of hair, then it is likely that your cat will not want to eat. Your cat will feel nauseous because the hairball is obstructing the natural digestive properties of the stomach and intestines. The lack of energy from not eating makes the cat feel lethargic.

Do Hairballs Pose A Health Risk?

Most of the time, hairballs are benign. They are expectorated and forgotten. However, hairballs can potentially lead to some pretty serious issues if they are ignored.

  • Hepatic lipidosis

Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) is a result of the cat not eating, which causes the cat’s 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. Without medication, the cat will become severely dehydrated and the liver will shut down, resulting in severe illness and ultimately death.

  • Obstruction of digestive tract

An obstruction is anything that blocks the digestive tract and doesn't allow food to be properly utilized by the body. As food moves through the digestive tract, it is absorbed in different stages and provides nourishment along the way. When a hairball obstructs this natural process, it causes the cat to become very sick. If the blockage doesn’t pass naturally, then surgery must be performed to remove it. Sometimes a veterinarian may use edible lubricants that coat the hairball to help move the blockage through the digestive tract to be voided in the stool.

  • Obstruction of airway

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 emergency situation in which immediate veterinary attention is often necessary. If you can see the hairball, then remove it safely by swiping your finger to dislodge it. But you should exercise extreme caution, as a cat that cannot breathe may become erratic and cause very serious wounds to you and anyone around it.

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 has to groom itself may have an issue with hairballs. Feral cats especially may have to confront this issue since they are forced to hunt prey like mice, squirrels, birds, and rabbits. The prey has excessive hair and can definitely cause hairballs to form.

Are There Ways To Prevent Hairballs?

Absolutely. There are all kinds of foods sold commercially that are directly formulated to deal with this issue. Furthermore, there are specialized supplements and edible lubricants like Laxatone that help with the safe passage of hairballs through the digestive tract.

Brushing your cat's fur daily will help tremendously as it will remove the bulk of the loose hairs that cause hairballs. If regular brushing isn't an option, then perhaps regular visits to a groomer can help. A groomer can thoroughly brush your cat for you or even keep your cat's hair cut short.

How Do You Know If You Should Let The Hairball Pass Naturally Or Intervene?

If you notice your cat retching, then observe if anything is produced. It can take several minutes and a few retches to finally vomit up the hairball. But if it doesn’t clear after a few tries, then it may be necessary to take action and intervene.

How Can You Safely Intervene?

The safest course of action is to take your cat to a veterinarian. The veterinarian is better prepared to deal with hairballs and can prescribe medicines that can safely help your cat pass the hairball.

If an emergency situation arises, such as a hairball getting stuck in your cat's airway, you can try to remove the hairball yourself by reaching in and swiping your finger to remove it. However, veterinary assistance is still the best and safest option.


Hairballs can be quite a nuisance and sometimes dangerous. Watching your cat vomit and having to clean up the mess are both unpleasant experiences.  But, there are actions a cat parent can take to help prevent them from occurring or at least reduce the frequency. Consult your veterinarian so they can help you figure out what food or supplement may help.  In the end, reducing your cat’s occurrence of hairballs will definitely keep them happy and healthy for many years to come.

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