What is a Cat Hairball?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cat hairball is a bolus of matted hair and food which forms in the intestinal tract of a cat. Hairballs can be a serious problem for cats, and people should be aware of the signs to look for so that they can identify a cat hairball problem early. While many hairballs are harmlessly passed through one end or the other of the cat, some can cause intestinal obstructions, which can lead to very serious medical complications including death if they are left untreated.

A vet may be able to offer advice for hairballs.
A vet may be able to offer advice for hairballs.

Many people who live with cats are familiar with the dry hacking sound of a cat trying to bring up a hairball, and with the astounding timing cats have for coughing up hairballs in the middle of the night, during critical dinner parties, and at other inconvenient moments. Hairballs are such a notorious part of cat ownership that they have been the fodder of numerous comic strips and jokes about cats.

Long haired cats may produce more hairballs that short haired cats.
Long haired cats may produce more hairballs that short haired cats.

Hairballs form because cats ingest hair on a regular basis. The digestive system of the cat is actually equipped to handle hair, both from grooming and from prey, but if a cat's diet is not well balanced, the hair may start to collect in the stomach or intestines, matting together to create a cat hairball. In some instances, the hairball may irritate the stomach, causing the cat to vomit it up, and in other cases, it may be passed during defecation. However, hairballs can also block the intestines, causing extreme discomfort.

Passing one to two hairballs a month is normal, and not a major cause for concern. If a cat starts vomiting more frequently, or develops a swollen abdomen, a lack of interest in food, an inability to defecate, or irritability, it can be a sign of a blockage caused by a cat hairball. In these cases, the cat needs to go to the vet. Surgery may be required to remove the hairball from the intestines safely.

Cat hairball prevention can be accomplished in a number of ways. Feeding a high fiber diet tends to help, as does regular grooming to reduce the amount of loose hair. Some people also have success with cat laxatives, and cat grass can also help to ease hair out of the body. Specially formulated food for cats who are prone to hairballs is also available. If a cat experiences repeated hairballs, a veterinarian may be able to provide additional ideas to help manage the problem.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I always feel so helpless when my cat has hairball symptoms. It sounds like she's really in distress while it's happening, and all I can do is watch her go through it. Sometimes I wonder if something other than a hairball is the problem, because she starts wheezing and coughing after running around the house at full speed.

I think anyone who wants to own a cat needs to understand the relationship between cats and hairballs. I have never met a cat without some hairball problems, especially long-haired breeds. They just like to groom themselves so often, and they are going to ingest some hair along the way. That's just the nature of cats.


Our cat was having at least 5 hairball incidents a month at one point, so we tried putting him on special hairball reduction cat food. I'd say the food helped reduce the severity of the hairballs, but not the frequency. We had to try some other cat hairball treatments, like administering a paste the vet recommended. Apparently it helped lubricate the cat's hairballs during digestion, so he could pass them more easily.

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