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Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Hairballs? Causes & Prevention Tips

If you’re a cat owner, you’re probably all too familiar with the retching and gagging sound of your cat throwing up a hairball. Hairballs, scientifically known as trichobezoars, are cylindrical masses of fur that form when cats ingest loose hair during grooming.

This ingested fur often passes through the digestive system without issues, but sometimes it accumulates in the stomach, forming a hairball that must be vomited out. In most cases, hairballs in cats are normal, but there are some warning signs you should be aware of.

Below, we’ll explore the common causes of hairballs in cats, what’s normal and what isn’t, and the best prevention and treatment options to keep your feline friend healthy and comfortable. 

Why Do Cats Have Hairballs?

So, why do cats get hairballs? It all comes down to their grooming habits! Cats are meticulous groomers who spend a lot of time licking their fur to keep it clean. Grooming also helps cats regulate their body temperature and stimulate circulation.

During the grooming process, cats inevitably swallow some loose fur and debris. As part of their natural hair growth cycle, cats also shed old or damaged fur regularly. This shedding can be more pronounced in certain breeds or during certain seasons, making ingestion more likely.

In many cases, the ingested fur passes through the digestive system smoothly and is excreted in the feces without causing any issues. But if the fur accumulates in the stomach and can’t be passed, it forms a hairball, and the cat’s stomach reacts by expelling the hairball through vomiting.

A Note About Overgrooming and Hairballs in Cats

Overgrooming is one of the most common causes of excessive hairballs in cats, and it can be a sign of a deeper issue. Changes in the household or routine can lead to stress, anxiety, and overgrooming as a coping mechanism.

Cats may also groom excessively in an attempt to soothe their skin if it’s itchy due to allergies or parasites like fleas. Overgrooming in one specific area can sometimes be a sign of pain or discomfort due to arthritis or an injury.

Some cats also overgroom as a way to pass the time and self-soothe if they are bored or lack mental stimulation. In some cases, this can become a compulsive behavior.

If you suspect your cat is overgrooming, it may be contributing to hairball issues. Consider a visit to your veterinarian to identify potential causes and find solutions to address the issue.

What Does a Normal Cat Hairball Look Like?

A normal cat hairball may simply be a small clump of fur, or it could be cylindrical or sausage-shaped. It can vary in size from 1-3 inches. They are normally the same color as your cat’s fur but may have a slight brownish tint due to digestive fluids.

Normal cat hairballs are primarily comprised of hair. However, they may also contain small amounts of undigested food, other debris, and clear liquid, which is usually saliva or gastric fluids.

If your cat’s hairballs are excessive in size, have an unusual color, are excessively frothy, or contain blood, reach out to your vet for advice.

Is It Normal for Cats to Vomit Hairballs?

So, is it normal for cats to throw up hairballs? Yes, occasional and intermittent vomiting of hairballs is generally considered normal. However, persistent or frequent vomiting of hairballs should be cause for concern.

Signs of an Underlying Issue

It’s important to understand potential signs of underlying issues so you can identify symptoms that may require a visit with a vet.

  • Changes in Appetite: A decrease in appetite or refusal to eat may be a sign of an upset stomach or gastrointestinal distress. This could be due to hairballs causing blockages or discomfort in the digestive tract.

  • Lethargy: If your cat seems unusually lethargic or lacking in energy, it’s possible that he’s not feeling well. Lethargy can be a sign that your cat is struggling with an underlying health issue or isn’t feeling well, including complications from hairballs.

  • Weight Loss: Significant weight loss without an explanation should always be investigated by your veterinarian. Unexplained weight loss could indicate that your cat is not able to properly digest food and absorb nutrients, potentially due to frequent vomiting or gastrointestinal blockages from hairballs.

  • Other Digestive Issues: Signs of digestive issues, such as diarrhea, constipation, or abdominal pain, also warrant a trip to the vet or a telehealth visit. These symptoms can be related to hairballs causing irritation or blockages in the intestines.

How Often Do Cats Throw Up Hairballs?

The frequency of vomiting hairballs can vary widely from cat to cat. Breed, grooming habits, age, and overall health can all influence how often cats throw up hairballs. In general, most cats throw up hairballs less than once per month.

Cats with long hair may experience hairballs more frequently, while short-haired cats may have them less often. The number and frequency of hairballs may also increase during spring and fall when seasonal shedding occurs.

When To Be Concerned About a Cat Throwing Up Hairballs

As mentioned above, less than one hairball per month is generally considered normal for most cats. If your cat is vomiting hairballs more frequently it warrants further investigation by your vet.

A more serious sign of underlying health issues is blood in your cat’s vomit or stool which could indicate irritation or damage to the digestive tract. If this issue occurs, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Vomiting can also be a symptom of other health issues. While we often associate it with an upset stomach, it can also be a sign of something serious or life-threatening. If you’re not sure it’s just a hairball or you’re noticing other symptoms, it’s best to reach out to your vet for advice.  

The Symptoms of a Hairball Blockage In Cats

Hairball blockages in cats are rare, but they can be a serious issue that requires immediate veterinary attention. Possible signs of a hairball blockage in cats include:

  • Frequent, Unproductive Retching or Gagging: Cats with a hairball blockage may attempt to vomit repeatedly without producing a hairball.

  • Sudden Changes in Behavior: Sudden changes in behavior, such as a lack of appetite, refusal to eat, or unusual tiredness and lethargy, are signs of an underlying issue that shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Abdominal Pain or Discomfort: In addition to digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea, abdominal pain or discomfort could indicate a hairball blockage. If your cat seems to be in pain when you touch their abdomen, has a hunched posture, or seems reluctant to move, a visit to the vet is recommended.

  • Swollen Abdomen: A visibly swollen or bloated abdomen may indicate a severe blockage that is preventing the passage of food and waste through the digestive system.

  • Dehydration: Signs of dehydration, such as dry gums, sunken eyes, and decreased skin elasticity, may occur if a blockage prevents proper hydration.

If you believe your cat may have a hairball blockage, reach out to your veterinarian immediately. Your vet will perform diagnostic tests to determine if a hairball blockage is present and outline the best course of treatment based on the severity and location of the blockage.

How to Prevent Hairballs in Cats

There are several things you can do to help prevent hairballs in your cat.

Regular Grooming

Regular brushing is extremely beneficial for removing loose fur before your cat can ingest it. Long-haired breeds may need to be brushed daily, while short-haired cats may only need brushing once a week.

For cats with long or thick coats, consider professional grooming services. Groomers can use professional tools and techniques to remove mats, tangles,and loose fur that can contribute to overgrooming and hairball formation.

Dietary Changes

Talk to your vet about switching your cat to a high-fiber food specifically formulated to help prevent hairballs. These diets are specifically formulated to ease the passage of ingested fur through the digestive tract, and they often include ingredients that promote healthy skin and coat.

Environmental Enrichment

Boredom and stress can lead to excessive grooming, which increases the likelihood of hairball formation. Minimize stress as much as possible and engage your cat with toys, climbing structures, and regular playtime for good mental and physical health.

Hydration and Wet Food

Proper hydration helps maintain healthy digestion and can prevent the formation of hairballs. Your cat should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. Incorporating wet food into your cat’s diet increases overall water intake and promotes better digestion.

If your cat doesn’t seem to drink enough water, consider investing in a pet water fountain. Some cats simply prefer running water, and a water fountain may encourage them to drink more, improving hydration and digestive health.

Treatment Options for Hairballs in Cats

If preventative measures aren’t enough and your cat continues to suffer from hairballs, there are several treatment options available.

Natural Remedies

Talk to your vet to see if natural remedies like pumpkin or fish oil might be beneficial. Adding a small amount of pure canned pumpkin to your cat’s diet can provide additional fiber and help move ingested fur through the digestive tract.

Adding a teaspoon of fish oil to your cat’s food once a week can also help support digestive health. It also lubricates the digestive system, making it easier for fur to pass. As an added bonus, fish oil is rich in omega-3s, which support skin and coat health.

Over-The-Counter Products

Hairball gels and pastes are widely available over the counter. These products contain mild laxatives and lubricants to help move hair through the digestive tract. They typically come in flavors that appeal to cats, making them easier to administer.

Medical Treatments and Interventions

If your cat is experiencing frequent hairballs despite your efforts to prevent them, reach out to your vet. A veterinarian can help identify the underlying causes of persistent hairballs. They can also prescribe stronger laxatives if needed to help pass an existing hairball. 

In rare and severe cases that do not respond to other treatments, your vet may recommend an endoscopy or surgery to remove a hairball obstruction and prevent further health issues.

Keeping Your Cat Hairball-Free

Hairballs are a common concern for cat owners. But with the right knowledge and preventive measures, you can significantly reduce their occurrence and keep your feline friend happy and healthy.

If you have further questions or concerns about your cat’s hairball issues, reach out to the experts at Bond Vet. Our experienced veterinarians are available for both telehealth appointments and in-person visits at multiple convenient locations.

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