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Cat Hairballs: Causes, Prevention, and When to See a Vet

Cat licking itself


Snuggling up to your favorite feline is every cat parent’s favorite pastime until your precious kitty starts gagging and hacking up a hairball. The ball of hair and saliva that ends up on your couch or living room rug can be pretty alarming and undeniably disgusting. But, don’t take it personally; your cat can’t help it if they need to cough up a hairball now and then.

But what if your cat is coughing up hairballs regularly? Cat hairballs are an expected part of cat ownership, but if your furry friend does it all the time, it’s cause for concern.

Cat Hairballs: Where Do They Come From?

It’s no secret that cats spend a good chunk of their day on grooming. If you haven’t noticed, your cat’s favorite hobby is probably licking themself for at least half the day. This is because cats have a strong desire to keep themselves clean. 

This need for cleanliness isn’t so much because they can’t stand being dirty as it is instinct. Cats have a highly effective sense of smell, and they lick themselves clean to disguise their scent from other cats and potential predators. Plus, self-grooming can feel good to your cat, and the licking helps them stay calm.

But all of this licking can have some side effects, especially if it becomes obsessive. The more your cat licks, the more fur can end up making its way from their tongue into their digestive tract. Your cat’s tongue features tiny barbs that can grab onto loose hairs. 

The hairs contain an indigestible protein, keratin. Typically, the strands end up passing through the digestive tract, and your cat eliminates them with their waste. You don’t even see them as you scoop your cat’s litter box

But, when your cat gets more hair in their stomach than they can handle, it forms into a giant clump; hello, cat hairballs. To get rid of the foreign object in their stomach, your cat vomits up the hairball. Which, actually, often doesn’t look like a ball at all, but a tube. It usually forms this shape as it comes up through your cat’s esophagus.

Should I Be Worried About Cat Hairballs?

If your cat only coughs up a hairball now and then, it’s probably nothing to worry about. However, if it becomes more routine to find hairballs around your house, then you need to take action. 

Besides being a pain to clean up, it also doesn’t feel good for your feline friend to keep vomiting hairballs. But, hairballs can also cause serious complications for your kitty.

Possible Dangers From Hairballs

Hairballs, or if you want to get scientific, trichobezoars, aren’t just a cat thing. It’s any mass of undigested hair that builds up in the stomach, whether inside of a cat, other animals, or even a human. But, we tend to see them often in cats since they spend so much time on self-grooming.

If your cat’s grooming becomes obsessive, it increases the chances of hairballs forming, thereby increasing their risk of the following dangers:

  • If your cat tends to get a lot of hairballs, sometimes they can harden in the intestine, forming a dangerous intestinal blockage.
  • When your cat is dealing with a hairball, it can make them lose their appetite, leading to weight loss.
  • Your cat can also experience diarrhea or constipation. If diarrhea is severe, it can lead to dehydration.
  • Severe blockages from hairballs can be fatal.

Some of these issues, like diarrhea, constipation, appetite loss, and lethargy, are symptoms of hairballs and a potential blockage. If you notice any of these issues with your cat, see a vet immediately.

If your cat has a blockage, your vet can recommend a course of treatment, which could include laxatives. However, in severe cases, your cat will likely need surgery. Never attempt to give your cat medication or laxatives without speaking with your vet. 

Also, don’t assume the hairball will eventually just pass through your cat’s system. If you wait too long, the condition can lead to dire consequences.

Cat laying down outside on leash

How Can I Prevent Hairballs?

The best way to prevent your cat from the discomfort of hairballs is to try and decrease the odds that hairballs will form. You can also use supplements designed to help hairballs pass through the digestive tract. There are also specially-formulated cat foods that contain highly digestible proteins to help prevent hairballs from forming.

First, pay attention to your cat’s grooming routine. If it’s excessive, then you need to pinpoint the cause for the excessive grooming and deal with it. 

Why Is Your Cat Obsessively Self-Grooming?

Cats can start obsessively licking due to stress, boredom, infections, or things like parasites or allergies.

Is It Stress or Boredom?

If your cat’s obsessive licking is due to stress, pinpoint the source. Do you have a new pet in the house? Does it happen when you go away to work for the day? You can provide your cat with safer ways to cope and relieve their stress, such as a Neat-Lik Mat or interactive toys

Licking releases endorphins that help calm your cat, but when they lick the mat, they won’t end up with a stomach full of hair. Allowing your cat to have access to toys that stimulate and keep them engaged is also critical, as are regular play sessions with your kitty.

You can even attempt to train your cat to walk on a leash and take them for some relaxing walks. If you have a new pet in the house, make sure to take the necessary time to introduce your cat to the new dog or cat in the home. You can also try calming sprays or diffusers that mimic a cat’s natural calming pheromones.

Is It Allergies, Parasites, or Infections?

In some cases, your cat could be dealing with allergies, fleas, or other parasites. There could even be an underlying condition, like a urinary tract infection, that’s causing your cat to lick and lick. So, schedule a vet visit if you notice your cat is starting to self-groom more than usual or the licking seems more intense.

If it’s ticks or fleas, your vet will recommend some type of parasite prevention. This is usually something you give to your cat monthly to protect them from infestations. If your vet finds an infection present, they can prescribe the necessary treatment.

Allergies are not uncommon in pets, and if your cat has an allergic reaction, your vet can help you narrow down the cause. It could be something in the environment, a food allergy, or seasonal allergies. Knowing the cause of your cat’s allergic reaction can help you eliminate the source and stop your feline’s ferocious licking habit.

Most of the time, your cat’s occasional hairball isn’t a cause for concern, except for the mess it leaves on your rug. But if you notice your cat obsessively licking themself and displaying symptoms of appetite loss, low energy, diarrhea, or constipation, seek help. It’s essential to get medical attention ASAP in case there’s an intestinal blockage. 

For more helpful tips on how to take the best care of your pets, check out the rest of our blog.* We’re always adding new ways for you to be the ultimate pet parent.

* We are not medical professionals. All advice has been thoroughly researched. However, we always suggest contacting your vet if you have a concern about your pet's health.

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