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How to Help Cats With Hairballs: Symptoms and Solutions

Written by

Tracy Isenberg, LVT

The average cat spends roughly half of their day grooming themselves. In the process, your cat swallows lots of loose hair from their coat. Did you know that excess hair in your cat's gastrointestinal tract is what causes hairballs?

Hairballs are normal for most cats. But, they can be a sign of a more serious health condition. In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of how to help cats with hairballs.

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What are cat hairballs

What are cat hairballs

Cat hairballs are caused when cats groom themselves by licking their fur. Some cats ingest more hair into their stomach than their GI tract can pass.

Some fur may naturally pass through your cat's digestive system and end up in cat poop in their litter box. But excess fur and loose hair can clump together into a hairball and sit in your cat's stomach.

DID YOU KNOW?

Richard Goldstein, DVM — an associate professor of small animal medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine — says hairballs have an elongated shape because they travel through the esophagus while vomiting.

Occasional hairballs are normal for most cats. But, if your cat is vomiting hairballs regularly, it may be a sign of:

  • An underlying health problem
  • Anxiety
  • Allergies
  • An imbalanced gut microbiome

A hairball can pass from your cat's stomach into their intestinal tract. This could create a potentially life-threatening blockage in your cat's gut.

VET TIP

If your cat is lethargic, loses their appetite for more than a day, or is dry heaving and not coughing up any hairballs, visit your veterinarian as soon as possible.

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Why do cats get hairballs

Why do cats get hairballs

Cat hairballs happen when your cat swallows too much hair from excessive grooming:

As your cat grooms themself, they swallow dead hair. The dead hair cannot move easily through your cat's digestive tract, so it gathers in your cat's stomach and becomes a hairball.

As cats grow older, they become more efficient at grooming and removing fur with their tongues. That's why older cats usually have more hairballs than kittens.


Cat hairball symptoms

Cat hairball symptoms

Some common symptoms of cat hairballs include:

  • Ongoing vomiting
  • Gagging
  • Retching
  • Hacking without producing hairballs
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

It's normal for hairballs to be confused with other health conditions like feline asthma. If your cat has additional symptoms including a dry cough or sore throat, visit your veterinarian for a chat check-up.

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5 solutions for hairballs

5 solutions for hairballs

If your cat struggles with the occasional hairball, don't worry. Here are 5 solutions for reducing cat hairballs.

1. Try lickable cat treats.

Try lickable cat treats

Some lickable cat treats coat hair in your cat's GI tract to prevent it from forming a hairball. You can add lickable cat treats to your cat's food, or let them lick from the package. Treat your cat regularly with lickable cat treats to moisten their esophagus and help them vomit hairballs more easily.

2. Feed your cat a healthy diet.

Feed your cat a healthy diet

Feeding your cat a healthy diet helps improve the quality of their fur and reduces hair loss. A well-rounded diet also promotes a healthy digestive tract. Adding supplements to your cat's diet may help them get essential vitamins and minerals their dry food lacks.

Switching from dry food to wet food may reduce the amount of hairballs and swallowed hair your cat experiences. Wet food helps keep cats hydrated and can also help reduce shedding.

3. Visit your vet for a physical examination.

Visit your vet for a physical examination

If your cat passes frequent hairballs or is unable to vomit a hairball due to a blockage in their digestive system, visit your veterinarian right away. Your vet will suggest a treatment plan based on your cat's unique condition.

4. Brush your cat's hair regularly.

Brush your cat's hair regularly

Brushing your cat's coat regularly with a soft brush once a day can help limit the amount of ingested hair in your cat's gut from self-grooming. And, getting your cat accustomed to regular brushing may promote bonding.

Long-haired breeds like Persians and Maine Coons are prone to more frequent hairballs. Keeping long-haired cats' fur at a healthy length with regular haircuts from a professional groomer may also help prevent hairballs.

5. Experiment with home remedies.

Experiment with home remedies

There are plenty of options for pet parents wanting to prevent hairballs at home. Here are some remedies for treating and preventing hairballs at home:

Increase your cat's fiber intake. Adding fiber is an easy way to increase the amount of hair that passes through your cat’s digestive tract.

Try Omega-3 supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil help reduce inflammation and hairball blockages in cats.

Add olive oil to cat food. Olive oil helps soften your cat's fur, making it less likely for them to ingest loose hair while grooming.

Keep your cat hydrated. Keeping your cat well-hydrated keeps their coat healthy and moisturized and prevents a hairball from getting stuck in their digestive tract.

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Frequently asked questions about cat hairballs

Still have questions about hairballs? Check out these frequently asked questions from pet parents.

How often should my cat throw up hairballs?

It's normal for your cat to throw up the occasional hairball. Roughly once a month is a safe amount, given your cat lacks any other worrisome symptoms like:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Withdrawal

How can I help my cat with hairballs?

Hairballs don't have to be a hairy dilemma for your cats. Here are 5 solutions for treating hairballs in cats:

  1. Try lickable cat treats
  2. Feed your cat a healthy diet
  3. Visit your vet for an exam
  4. Brush your cat's hair regularly
  5. Experiment with home remedies

How do I know if my cat has a hairball problem?

If your cat struggles with excessive licking and grooming, they may struggle with hairballs more than the normal cat. If your cat throws up a hairball weekly or even more consistently, visit your vet right away for a cat check-up.

How can I reduce cat hair loss?

Treating your cat with a vet-quality topical flea and tick treatment may prevent symptoms like itching, excessive grooming, hair loss, and skin irritation caused by fleas and ticks. Keep your cat hydrated with a healthy diet to keep their fur hydrated and reduce hair loss.

If you spot your cat throwing up a hairball, don't worry. There are plenty of ways to care for your cat’s health, even if they have hairballs. Be sure to keep your cat's digestive system top of mind, and visit your veterinarian regularly for checkups.


Author

Meet Tracy Isenberg, LVT

Tracy Isenberg, LVT is a member of PetFriendly’s in-house vet team. Tracy has over 25 years of experience working in the pet space as a veterinarian technician. She received her degree from Omaha College of Health Careers. Tracy has two dogs, a Bernese Mountain Dog named Bruno and a Yellow Lab Mix named Libby.