Why Does My Cat Have Hairballs? (and How to Prevent and Treat Them)

by | Nov 11 2019

Most cat owners know the sinking feeling you get when you hear your cat retch or, worse yet, have the unpleasant surprise of finding a hairball waiting for you when you get home.


While some kitty parents may do little more than faithfully clean up after their beloved cats and wait for the next time, other cat owners want to find out more. You’ve asked, “Why does my cat have hairballs?”, and you’re right to be curious!


With a better understanding of a cat’s physiology comes the ability to know when something progresses from normal behaviour to signs of something more worrying.


Why Does My Cat Have Hairballs?

Cats may be some of the cleanest animals on Earth, thanks to their thorough grooming routines—some cats spend up to half of their time cleaning themselves! However, this also means that they swallow a lot of their own fur throughout the day.


While most of this hair passes without issue through their digestive system, some hair may remain stagnant in the stomach for long enough to form a hairball, or furball.


How Do I Know if My Cat Has a Hairball?

Sometimes, the only way a cat owner will know if their cat has (or had) a hairball is to find the slippery, tube-shaped mass of hair that their cat has thrown up.


Other times, cats may display some symptoms immediately prior to ridding themselves of a hairball—gagging, coughing, or retching. Typically, this will last for only a short time before the cat is able to expel the hairball.


However, there are some instances when cats may show hairball symptoms for a more extended period of time. These symptoms tend to be signs of a longer-term, more serious issue:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Inability to pass stool
  • Lack of appetite or unintended weight loss
  • A lump in the stomach or a swollen belly
  • Excessive sleepiness and a lack of energy


Cat owners who notice any of the above should contact their veterinarian promptly.


Are Cats’ Hairballs Dangerous?

Most of the time, hairballs are completely harmless. However, there are some times when they cross the line into abnormal and should be examined by a vet, such as when a cat is experiencing any of the more dangerous symptoms listed above.


While most hairballs are able to pass naturally through a cat’s digestive tract or be vomited, there are times when a hairball grows so large that it causes a blockage or impaction. When this occurs, the hairball remains stuck inside the cat’s digestive system and prevents food from passing naturally, causing a lack of appetite or changes in bathroom habits.


Unfortunately, this can be life-threatening if left untreated, and a veterinarian may have to perform surgery to remove the impacted hairball.


How to Prevent Hairballs in Cats

Luckily, there are several ways for cat owners to work towards preventing hairballs in their cats. Even better, most of these steps are simple actions that can be taken each day and simply made part of a daily routine.


For example, cat owners can:

1. Groom your cat more frequently

Particularly for long-haired cats, helping cats to remove loose hair will be of huge benefit to them! Any hair not removed from daily brushing and grooming will likely end up in a cat’s digestive tract after bathing with their tongues—hence, hairballs. And make sure to increase your efforts during shedding season!


2. Ensure that your cat is well-hydrated

Providing a constant supply of fresh water for cats (and keeping track of how much they drink) is essential for their overall health and particularly useful for keeping a cat’s digestive system working at its best.


3. Keep your cat active

Regular exercise will help to keep your cat’s digestion system active. The more active it is, the less likely the hair your cat has swallowed will collect in clumps and form a furball.


4. Give your cat cat-grass to eat

Cat-grass can give you cat a boost in fibre and help them develop a more healthy digestion.


How to Get Rid of Hairballs in Cats

Knowing how to prevent hairballs in cats is important, but it’s just as crucial for cat owners to know how to treat/get rid of hairballs in cats when a problem arises! For cats with a more stubborn hairball problem, more intentional measures can be taken including:

  • Dietary changes. Some cat foods are formulated with higher levels of fibre in order to assist the feline digestive system in passing hairballs naturally.
  • Encouraging the cat to eat butter or oil. Just a small amount of these substances will leave the digestive tract slippery, making it easier for a cat to get rid of a stubborn hairball.
  • Trying gel treatments or specialised treats. Other products have been made specifically for the purpose of helping cats to expel hairballs which they might not be able to pass on their own.


Education and awareness are key to a healthy pet, even when it comes to hairballs! Cat parents can do their part to keep their cat comfortable and prevent excessive hairballs by making a few simple adjustments to their cat’s care and maintaining a watchful eye over their cat’s health.


A good rule of thumb:

If in doubt, call the vet. Hairballs may usually be harmless, but don’t take any chances!


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