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Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs in Cats

Cats spend a significant part of their lives cleaning and grooming — as much as 1/3 of their waking hours. While this natural instinct makes them ideal house pets, it can lead to some uncomfortable side effects.

The problem begins during the cleaning process, when cats often swallow their own hair. The cat’s tongue is the culprit. It has tiny, barb-like projections on its surface which pull loose hair from the coat. Because of the inward angle of these barbs, the hair remains lodged on the tongue’s surface until the cat swallows it. Since hair is largely insoluble protein, it cannot be dissolved by the cat’s digestive system. As this undigested hair begins to knot in the stomach and accumulate in the gastrointestinal tract it can interfere with normal digestion and elimination.

Symptoms of “hairballs” include constipation, listlessness and vomiting. It is also a cause of depression and loss of appetite in cats. The most dramatic and obvious symptom is the regurgitated hairball, which is often tubular in shape. Besides being an inconvenience to clean up, it is a definite sign that your cat has a problem and needs help.

Although rarely fatal, hairballs are very uncomfortable for your cat and can also indicate a serious problem. Cats that vomit hairballs frequently almost always have an underlying intestinal disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Normal short haired cats don’t vomit hairballs more than a few times a year.


Daily brushing of the cat’s coat to remove loose hair is good preventative medicine. Long-haired breeds like Himalayans and Persians need special attention. During the spring when all cats shed, daily brushing is especially important. After brushing, wipe your cat down with a damp towel to remove loose hair.

Besides brushing the coat, there are several medications which are available to eliminate hairballs and help prevent their reoccurrence. A dietary fiber supplement, when added to the cat’s food, can aid in the elimination of accumulated hair and other materials without discomfort. Look for foods that say “Hairball Control” or “Hairball Formula” on the label. Laxatives may also be recommended.

Remember, your cat relies on you for help in relieving this problem. A program of frequent brushing and regular use of a hairball remedy should help. Don’t ignore this symptom if it persists or seems excessive to you. There may be a serious underlying problem.