Why does my cat have hairballs?

What causes cats to have hairballs and should you be worried about them?
Written by Mayhew team
Updated 3 years ago

If you’re a cat owner, there’s a chance you’ll have heard a wet hacking noise coming from somewhere in your house, and you know you’re about to find a puddle containing a long hairy sausage. It’s hairball time. Cleaning these up are one of the less pleasant parts of sharing your home with a feline friend but do you know why cats have them and whether they should be a cause for concern?

What are hairballs?

The reason for hairballs (or ‘trichobezoar’) lies in your cat’s grooming routine. 

As adult cats spend between 30% and 50% of their day grooming themselves with their tongue, loose hair naturally finds its way into their stomachs. Their tongues also have hook-shaped protrusions, which helps in dislodging any loose fur. Their hair is made up of a protein called keratin, which our furry friends can’t digest. So when they have a grooming session, the fur is passed through their stomachs and usually comes out with their stool. 

Hairballs occur when the hair doesn’t pass through the stomach and forms a mass that has to be regurgitated. If you have a cat, you might already know that the term ‘hairball’ is a bit misleading, as the shape of their oesophagus squishes the impacted fur into more of a sausage shape. 

Do all cats have hairballs?

Not necessarily! Long-haired cats such as Maine Coons and Persians are more likely to have hairballs as they have more hair to groom. You may also notice hairballs being more common in the spring as cats shed their winter coats and so there is more loose fur when grooming. 

‘What about kittens?’ we hear you ask. Kittens are much less likely to get hairballs as they have less fur and groom themselves less often / less thoroughly when they’re young. 

How often should my cat cough up a hairball?

One or two hairballs a year is considered normal for cats. Even long-haired cats shouldn’t be experiencing more than this. 

Are hairballs a cause for concern?

Hairballs can be a cause for concern for your pet. If they are experiencing them regularly then it could be a sign of an underlying health problem such as skin conditions or stress/anxiety. Cats who are experiencing itchy skin or stress are much more likely to overgroom and cause an excess of hair to build up in their digestive tract. 

They can also grow to a size which is too large to be regurgitated, and may require surgical removal. There are some symptoms that you can look out for, which may indicate a blockage:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue 
  • Repetitive retching that isn’t producing vomit/hairballs

It’s important to remember that cats can cough and vomit for reasons other than hairballs. So make sure to get any unusual symptoms or behaviour checked out with your vet.

What can I do to prevent hairballs?

  • Brush your cat daily to remove loose hair, especially if you have a long-haired cat.   
  • Ensure your cat always has access to fresh water so that they can stay hydrated.
  • Don’t give your cat any medication (including laxatives) unless prescribed or advised by your vet. 

If you notice anything unusual or there are any elements of hairballs that you would like further information on, do get in touch with your vet.

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