Cat Hairballs: Are They Normal or Signals That Something’s Not Right? 

Ah, cats…They win our hearts with their adorable antics and cuddliness. While it can be challenging to narrow down the most appealing feline behaviors, it’s unlikely that their ability to hack up sticky, yellowed, elongated balls of fur would top the list. Instead, it’s something that most cat owners simply grin and bear as though cat hairballs were entirely normal. 

The truth is, hairballs aren’t always “normal”.

Fluffy Anatomy

When they aren’t sleeping, hunting or eating, cats keep themselves incredibly tidy. They come equipped with scratchy tongues to lift dead hair, dirt, parasites, and debris from their coats. 

Self-grooming or allogrooming (when they lick their fellow cats) is critical to their appearance, and keeps them safe from predators

One Step Further

The barbs that cover the top of the tongue face backward toward the throat. This means that whatever is caught by the tongue eventually gets swallowed. Cat owners are not usually surprised to see that some hair is passed through the GI tract and deposited in the litter box. 

Above and Beyond

Sometimes there is just too much hair in the stomach for a cat to properly or effectively digest. It becomes an irritant until they push it back up through the narrow esophagus and out of the mouth. Typically cat hairballs are 2-3 inches long, tubelike, and a yellowish brown color. You may notice bits of food and stomach acid mixed with the hairs.

When Cat Hairballs Are Normal

Cat hairballs are commonly seen during high shedding seasons, like spring. It can definitely be alarming and inconvenient to witness a cat throwing up, but it can happen 1-2 times a week during high shedding periods. 

That being said, however, it’s critical to remain vigilant regarding cat hairballs. Keep a journal and note the date and time the episodes happen. If you notice they’re increasing in regularity and intensity, it’s time to get your cat checked out.

When They Signal Danger

Generally speaking, vomiting is not a normal occurrence. But because of a cat’s fur coat, their tongue’s characteristics, and their propensity to groom throughout the day, throwing up hairballs seems like a normal thing, right?

Cat hairballs can be a health threat when they become too large in the stomach to digest, and too big to throw up. Sometimes, the stomach will pass an enlarged hairball to the intestinal tract, but it can actually become lodged there. This is a very dangerous situation for a cat to be in. Without surgical intervention, this can be fatal.

On the Lookout

A heightened awareness of your cat’s behavior is essential. If you notice dry heaving or unproductive vomiting, repetitive attempts to throw up, true vomiting, gagging, wheezing, lethargy and inappetence it is time to seek help.

Cat hairballs can be related to respiratory conditions, such as asthma. It may be necessary to order certain diagnostic tests to get to the bottom of excessive or severe cat hairballs. Blood tests, urinalysis,  x-rays, abdominal ultrasound, or endoscopic examination of the esophagus or GI tract can help determine larger issues.

Preventing Cat Hairballs

You can help your cat by reducing how much hair they can potentially ingest. Brush and comb them out 2-3 times a week. Offer lots of praise and rewards for letting you groom them. 

Nutritional supplements, such as fiber, or prescription diets can also reduce the prevalence of cat hairballs.

If you have further questions or concerns about cat hairballs, let us know. Our veterinarians at Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital are always here for you.