Cat Hairball 101: The What, Why, & How of Cat Hairballs

Cat Hairball 101: The What, Why, & How of Cat Hairballs

Every cat owner knows the sound of heaving and choking that occurs before a ball of hair is strewn about the floor of a living space. It is something that many cat owners believe simply comes with the territory and is certainly a small price to pay for all of the positives that accompany cat ownership. While common, however, hairballs should not be taken lightly.

Cat Hairball 101: What Are Cat Hairballs

Cartoons often depict cat hairballs as little balls of compacted fluff that are plopped out of a cat’s mouth and presented on the floor in a neat and compact pile. In reality, they are not nearly as “cute.” Identified as a collection of hair that accumulates in the stomach of a cat, a hairball is typically in the shape of an oval (due to the hair coming up through the cat’s esophagus), varies in size, and is covered by a layer of mucus. They are formed by a cat’s strict grooming regimen, a process that takes up 30% of a cat’s day-to-day life.

When a cat cleans itself, hair or fur catches on its barbed tongue and is then swallowed. The hair then accumulates in the stomach until the cat’s body decides that this foreign substance needs to be eliminated. Unfortunately, a hairball indicates that there is something “off” about how a cat’s body eliminates waste.

Cat Hairballs: What Causes Them?

While a cat’s grooming routine causes hair to enter the stomach, the hair should pass through the digestive system where it should then be eliminated, along with food, in a cat’s feces. A hairball occurs when a cat’s digestive system cannot move the hair through the stomach and intestines in a timely manner. In other words, the cat cannot digest the hair quickly enough.

Inflammatory bowel disease and hyperthyroidism are two illnesses that can slow the digestive process and cause cat hairballs. While rare, hairballs could be caused by underlying conditions like an intestinal cancer or a valve problem. It is also important to note that hairballs do not discriminate. Short-haired cats and long-haired cats can both suffer from hairballs, and hairballs are not just the product of living with a long-haired cat.

How to Handle Cat Hairballs

When it comes to a Cat Hairball 101 crash course, this is the topic that all cat owners want addressed. No one enjoys seeing their pet in discomfort. Sometimes, a hairball is inevitable; even the healthiest of cats will vomit from time to time. Becoming aware of your cat’s activities is a great way to deduce whether or not it’s time to take your cat to the vet. If they eat too quickly, vomiting can occur. However, if a cat begins producing hairballs regularly, it is time to head to a veterinarian to make sure that there are no underlying causes. Aside from diagnostic tests, your vet may perform an endoscopy under anesthesia to get a better look at the stomach of your cat.

Once your vet determines the likely cause of your cat’s hairballs, he or she will provide you with a treatment plan. Sometimes, it is as simple as changing your cat’s food or providing your cat with a petroleum-jelly-based solution that will allow your cat’s hair to more easily move through its digestive system.

Remember, while cat hairballs have been made to seem common, they are not indicative of a fully healthy feline. Do not try to treat your cat’s symptoms on your own. It is important that your cat is taken to a professional and that it is given a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan.


Central Texas Animal Hospital is a Cat Friendly Practice® and provides a variety of veterinary services for cats in the Pflugerville/Austin-Round Rock area including vaccinationsparasite preventiondental careweight managementspaying and neutering, and more. Call us at 512-251-BARK today to learn more!