What to Do About Hairballs in Cats

No two ways about it: Hairballs in cats are unpleasant. And they're not just disagreeable for the person who has to clean them up -- they can cause intestinal blockages, which can be a serious health problem, for your cat. It's a given that your cat is going to groom herself, so what can you do to keep hairballs to a minimum?

What causes hairballs in cats?

Hairballs, technically called trichobezoars, may be disgusting - especially on your white rug - but they develop as a result of your cat's healthy and fastidious grooming routine.

When your cat grooms himself, tiny hook-like structures on his tongue catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problems. But if some hair stays in the stomach, it can form a hairball. Ultimately, your cat will vomit the hairball to get rid of it. Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they often appear thin and tubelike, rather than round.

Hairballs in cats are more likely to appear in long-haired breeds, such as Persians and Maine Coons. Cats that shed a lot or who groom themselves compulsively are also more likely to have hairballs, because they tend to swallow a lot of fur. You may have noticed that your cat didn't have hairballs as a kitten, but developed them as she grew. This is quite normal -- as cats get older they become more adept groomers and therefore more proficient at removing fur from their coats with their tongues, which means more hairballs for you to clean up.

Symptoms of Hairballs in Cats

It can be disturbing to watch (and hear) your cat eliminating a hairball. Some common hairball symptoms include hacking, gagging, and retching. Usually, your cat will then vomit the hairball in relatively short order.

If you notice the following hairball symptoms, be sure to contact your veterinarian, as they could indicate that a hairball has caused a potentially life-threatening blockage:

  • Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea