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Common Illness in Cats – Hairballs

By Colleen Williams
April 21, 2016 • 2 min. read
cat grooming itself

Key Takeaways

  • Hairballs form when cats groom themselves.
  • Long-haired cats are more likely to develop hairballs.
  • Symptoms of an intestinal obstruction due to hairballs are vomiting, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
  • A veterinarian can perform an endoscopy to diagnose and remove a hairball.
  • Regularly brushing your cat can help prevent hairballs.

If you’re a pet parent with a cat, hairballs are the bane of your existence. These icky regurgitated wads are unsightly and just plain gross. Some cats are more sensitive or prone to developing hairballs than others. There are several ways you can treat and prevent this condition. Here are the facts about hairballs.


Hairballs – or trichobezoars, their medical name – are formed when your cat grooms him- or herself. The rough surface of cats’ tongues collects hair, which the animal then swallows. When this hair builds up in the stomach, it forms a compact structure that the cat then vomits up.

Long-haired cat breeds are more prone to developing hairballs, for obvious reasons. If your cat has fastidious or excessive grooming habits, this can also make him or her more susceptible.


You’ll know your cat has a hairball if he or she gagging or retching, typically a precursor to regurgitation of the hairball. However, there are some dangers and complications posed by hairballs. Intestinal obstructions can be formed if a hairball becomes too large or is unable to be vomited up. This requires immediate veterinary attention. The following are symptoms of an intestinal obstruction:

  • Vomiting, gagging, or retching that doesn’t produce a hairball
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

If you notice your cat exhibiting any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Diagnosis and Treatment

It’s fairly obvious if your cat is suffering from hairballs; you’ll hear the gagging and see the wads of undigested hair on your clean floors. If you think your cat may have a hairball-caused intestinal obstruction, your vet will perform an endoscopy to visualize and remove the hairball. An abdominal ultrasound may also be performed to rule out any other causes.

Home treatment for hairballs includes feeding your cat a food specifically formulated to reduce hairballs. Over-the-counter medications often contain a mild laxative that allows the hairball to be passed through the digestive system instead of up and out. Treatment for an intestinal obstruction can involve surgery if the obstruction is large enough, or an inpatient endoscopy to remove the hairball. IV fluids for dehydration may also be given.

If your cat’s hairballs do not improve with home treatment, visit your vet; prescription medications and foods can provide your cat with some relief.

Prevention and Management

Hairballs are easily preventable, especially in long-haired cats. Regular brushing and grooming of your pet can remove fur and reduce shedding; when your cat grooms him- or herself, no hair will be ingested! A bored cat tends to groom more as well – entertain your cat by playing more or adding some new toys to the house.

An unpleasant side effect of having cats is the hairballs they sometimes regurgitate. But for the savvy pet parent, hairballs can become a thing of the past. With the proper preventative measures, you can avoid this yucky condition completely. Simple home treatments can also cure hairballs, but if your cat does not experience relief, your vet can prescribe higher-strength medication. Watch your cat for signs of an intestinal obstruction, a complication that can arise from hairballs and requires veterinary attention. Having a cat is a life-changing experience full of entertainment and love – don’t let hairballs ruin it!

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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