red cat coughing up a hairball

Should I Worry About My Cat’s Hairballs?

Last Updated on May 30, 2021 by Holly Anne Dustin

Are Cat Hairballs Normal?

Hairballs are so common in cats that most vets and cat owners think little of it. It’s just part of owning a cat. There’s even a Hairball Awareness Day.

However, research is showing that cat hairballs are likely symptoms of a bigger problem like Irritable Bowel Disease. If Kitty has over 1-2 hairballs a month, it might be a sign that she has a real health problem and needs to see the vet.

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Why Does My Cat Keep Throwing Up Hairballs?

Grooming

When your cat licks her coat, fur sticks to her barbed tongue, and she swallows the fur. Her digestive tract is built to handle hair.  After all, in the wild cats eat the whole of whatever they catch, they don’t skin off the fur. But sometimes they can’t digest it. That’s when a hairball forms and you find that wet, nasty mess on the floor (bed, sofa).

Hairballs are more common in Persians and Norwegian Forest Cats and other long-haired breeds. Cats with an over-grooming habit will also have a more serious hairball problem. Older cats have bigger problems with hairballs because their digestive system has slowed down.

Red cat with hairball paste tube

Motility issues/Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Cat hairballs form when Kitty’s intestinal motility, or the movement of food through the digestive tract, is impaired. The typical stomach emptying time for a cat is less than 2 hours. In theory, Kitty should not be able to swallow enough fur in that timeframe to have it build up in her system.

A study in 2015 (source) shows that chronic vomiting problems in cats is a sign of small bowel disease. The hair and food don’t move through the digestive system as it should. Then when the cat takes in more food or hair, their system can’t handle it and they vomit.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease progressively thickens the walls of the small bowel and makes it more difficult for the cat to process food and hair. IBD can cause nutritional deficiencies and increase the risk of intestinal lymphoma.

Evidence is pointing to a connection between the typical carbohydrate-laden, dry food diet that a lot of cats are fed these days and the increasing problem of IBD. Hairballs, IBD, and obesity could all be reduced if we fed cats a diet closer to their natural diet.

coughing siamese cat on a blanket

How Can I Tell if My Cat Has a Hairball?

Lethargy

Your cat will be slow, seem sick, and uninterested in its normal activities. If Kitty just doesn’t seem herself, a hairball might be causing her distress.

Hacking, Coughing, and Gagging

Cat hairballs are a very common cause of vomiting and also can contribute to constipation.

Anyone who lives with cats has seen it; their cat hacks and gags. There’s a sound you can’t miss. You’ve all seen the meme about the alarm clock with the sound of gagging cat right?  And then the kitty vomits up a tube-shaped furball.

Some cats will even cry and fuss before vomiting it up. I’ve gotten out of bed many nights wondering what Flame was crying about to discover him about to hack up a hairball.

If Kitty has over 1-2 hairballs a month, it might be a sign that she has a real health problem and needs to see the vet

Weight Loss

Has Kitty stopped eating her meals? This is a sign that your furbaby isn’t feeling well. In extreme cases, a cat hairball can cause a digestive tract obstruction. If your feline friend doesn’t improve after trying some at-home remedies, take her to see the vet.

Changes in Litter Box Output

A cat that develops a large hairball in its digestive tract will have trouble excreting waste. Your pet may have frequent diarrhea or constipation. If this occurs, a trip to the vet is in order.

Distended Belly

Kitty will need to see the vet if a hairball problem causes an obstruction. If Kitty is trying to gag up that hairball but expels nothing, has lost her appetite, is lethargic, and is constipated or has frequent diarrhea she might have a blockage.

Your feline’s stomach will swell if there is an obstruction. This is a clear sign to see your vet fast.

How Can I Help My Cat with a Hairball?

Diet

The usual recommendation is for a “hairball formula” food. These are typically higher in fiber with omega fatty acids added to improve skin and coat.

The problem with those diets is the fiber can be up to 8% compared to a typical 2%. The higher fiber can put the cat more at a risk to other health issues like dehydration or cystitis.

Cats in the wild would not eat a “high fiber” diet. Cats are obligate carnivores. They need a meat-based, moisture-rich diet. Carbohydrates and fiber slow the speed that food paces through the gut. Fur is the last thing to pass through the system.

Switching from free-feeding typical dry food to grain-free, low/no carbohydrate canned food offered at designated meal times can help Kitty’s digestive system work properly. A fresh or minimally processed diet is even better.

Keep Your Cat Hydrated

Make sure that your furry friend drinks enough water to hydrate its intestinal tract. The liquid hydration will keep Kitty’s systems lubricated and running smoothly. Yet another reason a wet food diet helps treat cat hairballs and other ailments.

Adding fountains and multiple bowls around the house will help encourage Kitty to drink more. Some cats love a dripping tap.

Use Hairball Gels

If Kitty throws up undigested food after eating but acts normally and wants to go back to eating, this is a sign of a hairball preventing food from leaving the stomach.

Hairball paste remedies, or even straight petroleum jelly, are the best remedies for this situation. Don’t use them for more than a few days. If this situation reoccurs frequently, Kitty should see the vet.

Give Your Cat Oils or Butter

These are a more natural way to treat a hairball than the gels, but will not work as quickly. A little olive oil or butter will still lubricate the intestinal system and help expel hairballs. My cats love butter as a treat, hairballs or not.

It is a controversial option, but you could try a bit of coconut oil instead.

Add Egg Yolks or Egg Yolk Lecithin

1-2 egg yolks a week should prevent furballs from becoming a problem.  You can use a supplement instead if your kitty won’t eat eggs.

Provide Digestive Supplements

Feed your kitty supplements that will improve her digestion. There are several formulas that contain psyllium seed. It will encourage your cat’s digestive tract to pass the hairball instead of regurgitating it.

Probiotics and digestive enzymes will improve the health of Kitty’s digestive system overall.

Add Omega Oils

Fish oil or Krill oil will help improve the overall condition of kitty’s skin and coat which will help prevent hairballs.

Many canned fishes have natural oils, and they are often packed in oil. Give your cat a special treat of a bit of tuna or a sardine occasionally.

Give Your Cat Catnip or Cat Grass

This treat can provide extra fiber for your feline which helps them expel the hairball and provide some nutrients.

Monitor cat grass to make sure it doesn’t grow to unreasonable lengths where it might get caught in Kitty’s throat.

How to Prevent Cat Hairballs

The best way to prevent hairballs is to feed your cat a diet appropriate for cats and groom her regularly.

Brush your cat to remove dead and loose hairs from his coat to minimize the amount of hair he ingests while grooming himself. Removing the excess hair before she can swallow it is the one sure way to make sure you aren’t stepping on it in a wet and slimy hairball in the morning.

For long-haired cats, comb Kitty through with a good steel comb. A deshedding tool helps remove excess undercoat. Finish with a soft slicker brush and wipe her with a cloth to remove all loose hair.

Shorthaired cats will enjoy a nice rub with a Zoom Groom or similar tool, a brush with a pin brush and a finish with a bristle brush or a slicker.

A regular grooming routine of a bath and blow-dry can help remove a lot of her undercoat and help with hairballs.

A Clean Cat is a Happy Cat

Download a guide to cat grooming at home from our exclusive, subscriber-only, resource library of free and paid guides, ebooks, and printables. You will also get our “mews-letter” full of latest posts, tips, and special offers.

All Coughing Doesn’t Mean Hairballs

Unfortunately, hairballs are common for most cats. It is important to keep in mind, however, that there are several ailments that are too easily written off as hairballs.

  • Heartworm: a lung disease, well known in dogs, but also can affect cats.
  • Foreign bodies: Cats can ingest foreign bodies like string and ribbons from their toys, hair ties, or even the grasses that cats like to eat can get lodged in their throats.
  • Asthma and allergies: The most common cause are chemical irritants from litter dust, air fresheners, diffusers, flea spray and powders.

Conclusion:

Cat hairballs shouldn’t be normal. Cats with a healthy digestive system will have 1 or 2 hairballs a year, according to Dr. Jane Brunt, a veterinarian and executive director of the Catalyst Council.

If your Kitty has a more serious hairball problem that doesn’t respond to conventional home care, check into improving her diet, groom her regularly, and visit with her veterinarian.

Resources:

How to Manage Hairballs
New Thoughts on Hairballs
Conditions Confused with Hairballs
Facts about Hairballs

10 thoughts on “Should I Worry About My Cat’s Hairballs?”

  1. I’m very thankful that I don’t have a big problem with hairballs with my cats. Manna gets them every once in awhile, but she does a lot of mutual grooming with Dexter. Dexter is still pretty young and rarely has a hairball. Thank you for all of the great ideas! I never thought of giving them butter to help with a hairball.

  2. I always thought that hairballs were fairly common in cats, and was grateful that my cat rarely had any. I’m glad to know that having a cat does not automatically mean hairballs. I’m not sure if my sisters’ cats have hairballs frequently or not, I’ll have to share this with them.

  3. I had no idea that oils can help with hairballs! Interesting – definitely will share this with my neighbor. I have a tough time hearing the gagging, and I can only image that the kitty doesn’t like it either, so this is helpful.

  4. Unfortunately, living with two Persian cats, we do have hairballs. I try to feed a high protein canned food and Persian formula dry food to help with their coats. They are also groomed on a regular basis.

  5. Ours cough mostly to help bring up grass! They insist one eating it in spite of a good diet sheesh!

    We were sent some Tomlyn hairball control treats and used them on Jack (prone to hairballs) and they resolved his issues in a couple of days.

  6. Very informative post. I don’t have a cat, but Buffy does groom herself a lot and sometimes I worry about hairballs, although she has never vomited one. Thanks for providing a lot of ways to prevent them!

  7. Nice post. My cat Dusty used to suffer from hairballs consistently. Yes, I can say grooming is definitely one factor to be on top of to help your cat. It does help a lot. If they are having hairballs often, definitely visit the vet. Like you mentioned, it can indicate something more serious is going on.

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