What to Do About Hairballs in Cats

Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on February 26, 2023
photo of cat having hairball

Hairballs in cats are unpleasant. And they’re not just disagreeable for the person who has to clean them up -- they can cause intestinal blockages, which can be a serious health problem for your cat. It’s given that cats are going to groom themselves, so what can you do to keep hairballs to a minimum?

Hairballs may be disgusting, but they develop as a result of your cat’s healthy and fastidious grooming routine.

When your cat grooms themselves, tiny hook-like structures on their tongue catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive tract with no problems. But if some hair stays in the stomach, it can form a hairball. Usually, your cat will vomit the hairball to get rid of it. Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they often appear thin and tube-like, rather than round.

Hairballs in cats are more likely to appear in long-haired breeds, such as Persians and Maine Coons. Cats that shed a lot or who groom themselves compulsively are also more likely to have hairballs because they tend to swallow a lot of fur. You may have noticed that your cat didn’t have hairballs as a kitten, but developed them as they grew. This is quite normal -- as cats get older they become more adept groomers and therefore more proficient at removing fur from their coats with their tongues, which means more hairballs for you to clean up.

However, while rare, hairballs can present dangers if the clump of fur in the cat’s stomach becomes too large to pass or gets lodged in their digestive tract. 

It can be disturbing to watch (and hear) your cat eliminating a hairball. Some common hairball symptoms include hacking, gagging, and retching. Usually, your cat will then vomit the hairball in relatively short order.

If you notice the following hairball symptoms, be sure to contact your veterinarian, as they could indicate that a hairball has caused a potentially life-threatening blockage:

  • Ongoing vomiting, gagging, retching, or hacking without producing a hairball
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

 

Nothing can be done to totally prevent hairballs in cats, but there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood your cat will have hairballs or reduce their frequency.

Groom your cat regularly. The more fur you remove from your cat, the less fur that will end up as hairballs in their stomach. Combing or brushing your cat on a daily basis can be an effective way to minimize hairballs, and it can also provide a fun way for you to bond with your cat. If you can’t get your cat accustomed to brushing, think about taking them to a professional groomer for a grooming and haircut (especially for long-haired cats) every 6 months or so.

Try cat food formulated for hairballs. If your cat coughs up hairballs regularly, consider switching to a food specifically formulated to help reduce the issue. Many cat food brands have a product to deal with hairballs. The formulas typically include things such as increased fiber, oil, minerals, and vitamins that can help the swallowed hair pass through the digestive system naturally. 

Add more fiber. Just like humans, cats need fiber to maintain a healthy digestive tract. However, their nutrition needs are different from humans and other omnivores, as they typically don’t need plant fiber. Even so, adding some extra fiber to your cat’s diet can help to lower the risk of hairballs by helping to move things through their digestive system better. Some forms of fiber to add include:

  • Pumpkin (or pumpkin powder)
  • Apples
  • Carrots
  • Cat grass
  • Metamucil (fiber pill or powder)

Keep in mind that a cat’s fiber needs are much different from those of a human. You don’t want to add too much to their diet, or else your cat may experience some unpleasant side effects. Too much fiber in a cat's diet may block them from absorbing nutrients well. If you're already feeding your cat a hairball formula food, more fiber may be a bad idea. If you’re unsure of how much to add, talk to your cat’s vet. 

Use a hairball product or laxative. There are a number of hairball products on the market today, most of which are mild laxatives that help hairballs pass through the digestive tract.

Be sure to use any OTC products as directed. If you use a laxative, please be sure to check with your veterinarian first. If your cat has any other health conditions, a laxative could be be the wrong thing to give them. Also, a laxative may be the wrong type for your cat. 

Discourage excessive grooming. Excessive grooming can be due to pain, anxiety, or other causes. Check with your vet if your cat is overgrooming. 

Use baby wipes. After brushing your cat, wipe them with a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic baby wipe. Alternatively, you can use a damp paper towel. A moist cloth such as these helps to remove any remaining loose fur, which helps to reduce the amount that ends up in your cat’s stomach and reduces the risk of hairballs.

Increase water intake. If your cat eats dry food, their diet likely isn’t providing enough water to meet their hydration needs. As such, their digestive system may not be able to function as well as it should. 

Offer your cat a clean, fresh water source. Many felines prefer running water to still, and they may not like the smell or taste of tap water. You might consider getting your cat a water fountain to get them to drink more. Canned food may also provide enough hydration to help keep the digestive system moving properly, reducing the risk of hairballs. 

Lubricate the digestive tract. Incorporating oil into your cat’s diet can help to lubricate the digestive tract, making it easier for hair to pass through naturally. Add a teaspoon of olive oil to your cat’s food once a week. Provide your cat with a small amount of canned tuna or sardines occasionally. 

You could also put a small amount of petroleum jelly on the top of your cat’s paw. They’ll lick it off, and the jelly will line the digestive tract to help the hair pass through their system. There are also petroleum-based remedies available that you can periodically feed your cat. 

 

While you might not need to worry about the occasional hairball, there are some instances in which you should see your vet. It’s rare, but hairballs can grow so large that your cat can’t pass them, or they can get lodged in the digestive tract, creating a blockage. If the hairball is too large, surgery may be required to remove it.

You should see your vet right away if your cat:

  • Tries to vomit but can’t get anything out, or vomits up phlegm or bile
  • Is coughing frequently
  • Is having trouble defecating (pooping) 
  • Has diarrhea 
  • Has a bloated, hard abdomen
  • Becomes lethargic (tired)
  • Loses their appetite or won’t drink 

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images

SOURCES: 

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: “A Hairy Dilemma.” 

ASPCA: “Hairballs,” “Cat Grooming Tips.”

American Animal Hospital Association: “What can I do about my cat that vomits regularly?” 

Veterinary Information Network: “Pet Rx: Help with Hairballs.”

Feline Nutrition Foundation: "Answers: Do Cats Need Dietary Fiber?

AnimalPath.org: "Shaving Cats Pros and Cons."

Cat Health: “Giving Your Cat Clean and Fresh Water,” “Should You Get Your Cat a Water Fountain?”

Cornell Feline Health Center: “The Dangers of Hairballs," "A Hairy Dilemma.”

 

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