Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Hairballs are common and normal, but they can sometimes cause issues...

Created: 5/23/2024 Updated: 5/23/2024 - Vicky Payne

cats, grooming, health, Health & Wellbeing

If you share your life with a cat, it is very likely that at some point you will encounter a hairball. Unfortunately, that may be with your bare feet on your way to the loo in the early hours…

Cats spend a lot of time grooming themselves to keep their coat clean and in good condition. The barbs on their tongue act like a comb removing dead hair and debris. Most of this hair is then swallowed.

Cats can’t digest the hair so it either needs to pass out of the digestive system in the faeces, or be brought up by vomiting as a hairball. Did you know that the scientific name for a hairball is trichobezoar. Hairballs are usually the same colour as the cat’s fur, but may appear darker if they have been in the stomach for some time.

Occasional hairballs are normal and indicate that a cat is grooming themselves. Regular vomiting of hairballs may indicate that your cat is overgrooming. If a large ball of fur forms and passes into the small intestine this may cause a blockage.

Hairballs can be quite spectacular in size. Most are 2-3 cms long and 1-2cm wide, but they can be as long as 10 cm! Hairballs may be brought up with food, or just in a little bile.

Ginger cat cleaning itself

Signs your cat might be producing a hairball

Cats vary in the symptoms they display when suffering with a hairball. Some show very little change in behaviour and will bring up the hairball with little fuss. Other cats may go off their food for a day or two, whilst others have difficulty in bringing up the hairball.

Bringing up a hairball is normally preceded by coughing, heaving, retching, and bringing up small amounts of bile and phlegm. Some cats will show signs of discomfort such as restlessness and asking to go outside, others make worrying yowling noises. If your cats is showing signs that they are trying to bring up a hairball keep an eye on them, but give them space and privacy.

How often do cats produce hairballs?

Healthy cats should bring up less than one hairball a month.

Are certain cats more prone to hairballs?

Kittens are less prone to getting hairballs. This may because they haven’t got into a self-grooming routine yet, or because food generally passes through a kitten’s digestive tract faster than through an adult cat’s.

Elderly cats are more likely to suffer with hairballs. They may overgroom due to pain leading to more hair ingestion, and their intestinal transit time is often slower as they are less active than younger cats. Dental problems in older cats means they may also bring up undigested food along with hairballs.

Long haired cats including domestic long hairs, Maine Coons, and Persians are more likely to have hairballs than shorter coated breeds as the longer hair fibres are more likely to clump together. Long haired breeds have often also been bred for a particularly thick coat. British short haired cats also seem to get furballs more often than domestic short hairs as their coat is so dense.

Vets see a peak of enquiries about hairballs in the Spring and Autumn when cats may undergo a seasonal coat change.

Fluffy white cat

Hairball prevention

There is no way to avoid hairballs completely, but grooming your cat regularly will limit the amount of loose fur they swallow when grooming. Some cats can be a challenge to groom, but most enjoy a soft massage brush like these, which are also excellent at picking up loose hair:

If your cat is not used to being groomed keep sessions very short and gentle. Offering a tasty treat during grooming may make your cat more co-operative. Start with areas your cat enjoys being touched and only deal with knotted areas when they are relaxed. If your cat is very matted consult your vet or a professional cat groomer.

Products with hairball control

For cats that get frequent hairballs there are foods and treats that can encourage the hairball to pass through the digestive tract to be passed in the faeces.

Cat cleaning it's paws showing the texture of it's tongue

Unsure if your cat’s hairballs are normal?

Hairballs are common and normal, but they can sometimes become stuck and cause more serious health problems. The signs of hairballs can also be seen in other illnesses so consult your vet if you are concerned. Signs your cat may need to see the vet include:

  • Your cat retching for a long time without bringing up a hairball

  • The hairball seems to be stuck and your cat is distressed

  • Your cat is coughing hairballs up more than once a month

  • Your cat is constipated

  • Loss of appetite

  • Lethargy

  • A swollen abdomen (belly)

  • Bald areas suggesting overgrooming

Do you need further advice?

If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email helpline@oscars.co.uk.