Cat Hairballs 101: How to Help

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Apr. 26, 2023
calico cat looking at person's hand cleaning up mess with plastic bag on carpet

Sharing your home with a cat has many upsides—hairballs are not one of them. It might come as a surprise that hairballs are not an inevitable part of a cat’s life. Yes, cats do a lot of grooming and ingest a lot of fur in the process. But when all is well, that hair should pass uneventfully through their digestive tract and come out in the litter box.

Let’s look at why that doesn’t always happen and what you can do to treat and prevent hairballs in cats.

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What Does a Cat Hairball Look Like?

In its most common form, a hairball looks like a wad of fur that has a somewhat tubular shape after being forced up through the esophagus. Fresh hairballs are usually wet, but they can dry out quickly if they go unnoticed. You may at first confuse a hairball with cat poop and think that your cat went outside their litter box.

Sometimes cat hairballs aren’t so well-formed. For example, you might come across a looser tangle of fur mixed with some food, mucus, or fluid, which may be tinged with bile. In these cases, it can be hard to figure out if your cat is vomiting because of the hair or if the hair was just brought up with everything else.

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Image credit: Roo the cat

Why Is My Cat Getting Hairballs?

All cats swallow hair as they groom themselves, but why do some have problems with hairballs while others don’t?

Fur is not digestible. It’s made mostly of keratin, which isn’t broken down by the acids and enzymes in a cat’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. And when a lot of fur is in the tract, it tends to get tangled into large clumps.

A healthy feline digestive tract is designed to handle normal amounts of fur passing through, but two types of problems lead to the development of hairballs:

Ingestion of more fur than normal, which can happen with:

Diseases and issues affecting the GI tract:

What if My Cat Is Trying to Cough up a Hairball but Can’t?

Most people say the phrase “cough up a hairball,” but what’s actually happening is retching and vomiting. Sometimes retching can sound like coughing, but the hairball is in the cat’s digestive system, not their respiratory tract.

If you’re nearby when your cat is trying to bring up a hairball, you might notice some telltale behaviors. Many cats cry out and get restless when they feel like they’re about to vomit. Then, your cat’s abdomen will contract several times and you’ll hear them retching with the contractions.

But sometimes the hairball doesn’t come up on the first try or even the second, third, or fourth. You may hear the retching and see wet spots that look like clear or brown liquid where your cat tried to bring up the hairball as they move around from spot to spot.

Most people say the phrase “cough up a hairball,” but what’s actually happening is retching and vomiting.

If they do succeed in vomiting up the hairball, they should seem to immediately feel better and go back to their normal behaviors. This is what sets hairballs apart from other cases of cat vomiting, which usually result in persistent nausea combined with other symptoms like lethargy and a poor appetite.

Call your veterinarian for advice if your cat tries to vomit two or three times in a day, whether they bring anything up or not, or if the vomiting continues for more than a day or two. You may be dealing with a hairball that has become stuck or you may not be dealing with a hairball at all.

Treating Hairballs in Cats

Cats that only bring up a hairball once a month or so generally don’t need to be seen by a veterinarian for a thorough health workup. Trying a little home treatment makes sense.

But veterinary care is essential if your cat is having hairballs more often than this or if you’re seeing other symptoms, like poor appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.

How Vets Diagnose and Treat Hairballs in Cats

The veterinarian will first ask questions about what you’ve seen at home and your cat’s health history, and then they will give your cat a physical exam.

Testing may include skin scrapings to look for mites, ringworm cultures, cytology to rule out skin infections, abdominal X-rays or ultrasound, blood work, urinalysis, fecal examinations, a hypoallergenic food trial, or biopsies of the gastrointestinal tract or skin. These tests will help the vet diagnose whatever is causing the hairballs.

If there’s an underlying health or behavioral issue, the vet will recommend treatment to address it.

Home treatment is not appropriate for cats that have frequent hairballs.

Surgery is usually needed to remove very large hairballs that are blocking a cat’s GI tract. The doctor will examine your cat’s entire digestive system for other hairballs and repair or remove any damaged tissues that are found.

Are There Home Remedies for Cat Hairballs?

Home treatment is not appropriate for cats that have frequent hairballs. An underlying health problem is usually to blame for their formation, and if it isn’t treated, the cat won’t get better.

But for infrequent hairball episodes, here are several safe home remedies that you can try:

Never give your cat cooking oils, butter, lard, grease, or mineral oil in an attempt to help them with hairballs. Cooking oils and fats will merely be digested and won’t help. Mineral oil is very dangerous if inhaled, which can easily happen when a cat is vomiting.

How To Prevent Cat Hairballs

Once your cat is hairball-free, you can start thinking about prevention. Underlying health problems may need continued management, but you can also try these tips:

  • Brush your cat more often to reduce the hair they ingest. This is especially important for long-haired cats.
  • Give your cat Laxatone or another hairball-control gel two or three times per week.
  • Add fiber to your cat’s diet through treats and nutritional supplements or by switching to a hairball control food.

Together, you and your veterinarian can come up with the best way to treat and prevent hairballs. Your cat will thank you!

Featured image:

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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