Cat hairballs are common but can sometimes become an emergency. Learn what causes them, what you can do at home, and when to talk to your vet.

By Kristi Valentini
September 03, 2020
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Credit: Eric Jeon

Watching your cat struggling to cough up a hairball is unnerving. It looks and sounds like they’re choking, but hairballs are harmless, right? Not always, Lynn Paolillo, CFMG, an instructor at the National Cat Groomers Institute, says. Though it’s common for cats to get hairballs, it can also be a sign of trouble. Read on to learn what causes a cat hairball and what remedies will help your kitty safely pass one.

What Are Hairballs? 

A cat hairball is exactly what it sounds like: Hair that clumps together inside a cat’s digestive system.

A cat’s fur contains an indigestible protein (keratin). According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, when a cat swallows hair it usually travels through their digestive system and gets passed out through their stool. Sometimes, however, hair accumulates in the stomach and lumps together. To get rid of it, your cat will usually throw it up. 

If a large hairball ends up blocking the openings of the stomach—at the esophagus or the intestine—or gets stuck in the digestive tract, it’s an emergency, Cornell experts say.

What Causes Hairballs in Cats? 

Cats are excellent groomers, licking themselves clean day in and day out. In the process, they end up ingesting a lot of dead hair. Cat hair is denser than human hair, Paolillo says. People have only one hair growing out of each hair follicle, but cats have six to eight for each hair follicle. Also, she says, some cats may have a predisposition to developing more hairballs. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, cats are born with simple hair follicles that later become compound. Furthermore, their hair growth is affected by seasonal changes, hormones, nutrition, and genetics. 

How Often Should Cats Have Hairballs? 

It’s common for cats to have a hairball once in a while, at most once a week, Cornell Feline Health Center (CFHC) reports. But it’s still a good idea to chat with your veterinarian about your cat’s hairballs to make sure it’s nothing serious. 

If your cat is throwing up more frequently, you definitely want to address it with your vet. It could actually be another problem like asthma or a digestive issue.  

What Remedies Help Cats Pass Hairballs? 

If your cat is getting hairballs, it’s important to brush them on a regular basis, Paolillo says. This removes extra hair so they aren’t ingesting as much of it. Giving them baths also helps remove dead hair (and dander and dandruff) before it causes a problem. 

“Your vet may also recommend a laxative to make it easier for the hair to come out the other end without being vomited,” Paolillo says. “These products make hair slicker so they pass through the digestive system more easily without clumping together and causing a blockage.” 

When Is It an Emergency?

Don’t wait until your annual vet visit if your kitty keeps trying to vomit but nothing comes out. According to the CFHC, other signs of potential blockage include lack of appetite and true vomiting. Your vet will want to do a physical exam right away. If a blockage is suspected, surgery may be required, though most cases are treated with clinical care for several days first. 

The bottom line: Hairballs are common, but can become an emergency when they don’t pass. Talk to your vet about your cat’s hairball frequency and be sure to regularly brush and bathe your cat to help avoid hairballs altogether.