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Everything you need to know about cat hairballs

How to provide relief if your cat gets hairballs.

When a cat has ingested too much hair or has a condition preventing them from passing hair through their digestive system, a hairball can form — and end up on your carpet.

Although hairballs are fairly common, Dr. Elizabeth Bales, VMD, a veterinarian at Tably, says your cat shouldn’t have them frequently. Here are some reasons why your cat has hairballs and what you can do at home to prevent them.

Why do cats get hairballs?

When cats groom, the little hook-like structures on their tongue grab loose hair. The hair is swallowed, travels to the stomach through the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and comes out the other end in their stool.

Cats of all breeds get hairballs when they groom too much or have a medical condition affecting the GI tract. When a hairball forms in the stomach and can’t pass through the GI tract, cats vomit up the hair — they don’t cough up a hairball through the respiratory system.

Here are some of the most common causes of cat hairballs:


Seasonal and skin allergies in pets can cause irritation and itchiness, and then excessive grooming.


When your cat has parasites like fleas, their skin could become irritated and itchy, leading them to overgroom.


Anything from arthritis to a urinary tract infection could cause your cat discomfort and pain — and grooming is a common way that cats soothe their skin. 


When your cat is stressed about something, like a move or introduction to a new pet, they might excessively lick to self-soothe.

GI disease

If your cat has a GI condition, the inflammation of the GI tract could prevent their hair from passing through.

Is it normal for cats to have hairballs?

“It is normal for a cat to groom themselves and pass hair undigested through the GI tract,” Dr. Bales explains. 

But this safe passage through the body doesn’t always happen. “It’s common, but not normal for the hair to form a hairball in the stomach,” Dr. Bales adds.

What does a cat hairball look like?

Despite their name, hairballs aren’t usually in the shape of a ball. Instead, hairballs look like an elongated mass and might have a mix of hair and stomach contents.

RELATED: How and when to bathe a cat

My cat is trying to cough up a hairball but can't

If your cat is trying to vomit up a hairball but can’t, call your veterinarian for an exam. 

“This could be a hairball that requires treatment or even surgery,” Dr. Bales explains. “Or, the dry heaving could actually be mistaken for an asthmatic cough or other respiratory or GI signs.”

Obstructions, including ones caused by hairballs, are always an emergency. If you think your cat is struggling with an obstruction, look out for dry heaving, lack of appetite or lethargy and take your cat to the veterinarian.

Cat hairball remedies

The best way to prevent hairballs is to diagnose and treat the root cause of overgrooming or the inability to pass hair through the GI tract.

“See your vet to rule out a medical cause and provide an environment that meets your cat’s minimum behavioral needs,” Dr. Bales says.

While working with your vet to treat the root cause of hairballs, switch to a hairball-control cat food or include tasty treats that help hairballs pass through a cat’s GI system. There are also oral medications that help hairballs slide through the GI tract. And to reduce the ingestion of hair, brush your cat weekly or consider a trip to the groomer.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

Photo by Dhaya Eddine Bentaleb on Unsplash

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