When Cat Hairballs Become More Than an Inconvenience

A cat sleeping.

You can often tell how good a cat feels by virtue of their coat’s appearance. A full, shiny, thick fur coat is certainly a sign of health, just as a dry, flaky, crusty coat signals that something is off.

And while all cats self-groom (some more than others, of course), not all cats cough up those sticky, tubular balls of absolute yuckiness. Cat hairballs are widely perceived as normal, but if they happen more than 1-2 times a year it may be time to investigate what’s truly going on.

A Learned Behavior

Kittens learn the art of self-grooming from their mothers, but they don’t really excel at the behavior until well into adulthood. As a result, young cats don’t typically produce hairballs. Longer-haired cats, like Persians or Maine Coons, may have more frequent hairballs (or not, all cats are different).

The Process

When cats groom themselves or other cats (also called allo-grooming), their tongues naturally pick up loose/dead hairs, dirt and debris off the coat. The feline tongue is covered with backward-facing barbs that make it easy to clean the coat, but impossible not to swallow what has gathered there. 

Cats are well-equipped to handle the ingestion of hair, and are generally able to digest any hair accumulated in the stomach. It is not uncommon for cat owners to find hair in the litter box, passed with a normal bowel movement.

Facts About Cat Hairballs

During seasonal high-shedding seasons, like spring and fall, cats tend to eat more hair. If large masses collect in the stomach, a cat may feel irritation and indigestion – the only solution may be to vomit. Cat hairballs are considered normal when they occur about 1-2 times every year.

Not Normal

Cat hairballs can be treated with adding a little extra fiber to the diet. Canned, unsweetened pumpkin can bulk up the flow of digestion making it easier to pass hairballs during high-shedding seasons.

However, if you see an increased frequency of cat hairballs, they might not be triggered by irritating hair. In fact, if your cat is throwing up more than ever before (and the vomit doesn’t have a lot of hair in it), it could be a sign of other medical concerns that require immediate action. Through an in-depth physical exam and potential diagnostics, we can help you get to the bottom of vomiting and/or frequent cat hairballs. 

Helping Out

Since grooming is essential for your cat’s health, we recommend picking up their brush every day. This way you can decrease how much hair they could otherwise collect on their barbed tongue and reduce the prevalence of cat hairballs.

We Are Here to Help

If you have further questions or concerns about your cat’s health or behavior, we encourage you to schedule a wellness exam. Our staff at 10 West Bird & Animal Hospital are always here for you, and look forward to hearing from you.