Every  cat owner knows that the one sound that can wake them from a sound sleep is the sound of their cat vomiting up a hairball.  Better still,  is the feeling of stepping on that gooey hairball.

Most cat owners think that hairballs are a completely normal part of their cat’s health, however there is more to those hairballs than meets the eye.

All cats groom themselves and they ingest the hair that is removed by their rough tongue.  Normally this passes through the gastrointestinal  tract with no issues.

A hairball, otherwise known as a trichobezoar, is created when a cat ingests too much hair, or the gastrointestinal transact cannot properly expel the hair through the feces.

It is important for a  veterinarian to identify the underlying cause of why your cat has developed hairballs.  

These are the most common reasons for hairball formation:

  1. Long-haired cats.  Most cats are short haired and normal grooming does not create a situation where too much hair is being ingested.  Long-haired cats however have too much hair to be groomed solely by themselves.  So if they are not being brushed thoroughly by their owners, hairballs can ensure.  This is also true for multi-cat households in which the cats not only groom themselves but  the other cats.                                    
  2. Over-grooming. This also increases the amount of hair that is being ingested.  There are several reasons why a cat may be over-grooming and the underlying cause should be determined.
    1. Stress
      1. anything in the house that can result in anxiety triggers excessive grooming as a self-soothing mechanism
    2. Pain
      1. Areas that cause pain (GI tract, Urinary tract, arthritis pain) can result in cats excessively licking at the area
    3. Parasites
      1. Cats will overgroom themselves secondary to itch from external parasites such as fleas.
    4. Fungal or bacterial infection
      1. Ringworm, which is a fungus, and bacterial infections of the skin can result in excessive licking/grooming due to itching
  3. Decreased removal of hair from the digestive tract
        1. If the GI tract is not functioning properly to empty the stomach and small intestines, even a normal amount of hair cannot be expelled through the stool and this can create a hairball. 
          1.  Neurologic changes to the GI tact (ileus, megaesophagus, hernia) which change the motility of the intestines
          2. Inflammation of the GI tract (IBD, pancreatitis) which can aldo decrease motility and the digestive ability of the GI tract
          3. Neoplasia or cancer of the GI tract which can result in obstruction of the GI tract as well as decreased mobility


SO as you can see there are many underlying causes of your can to vomit hairballs and finding that cause is important rather than just treating the symptoms.

The veterinarian will likely recommend diagnostic tests, such as lab work, radiographs, possibly an ultrasound or even an endoscope to visualize the stomach and the small intestines.  The endoscope can also be used to possibly remove the haiball if it is resulting in an obstruction.                             

The primary problem should always be addressed if possible and treated.  It may be as simple as brushing your cat  more frequently or could be more complicated depending on the underlying cause.  

There are diets that can help to control hairballs as well as certain oral treatments, such as laxatone, which can be given to help with the clinical signs until a diagnosis can be made.

So now that you know that while hairballs may be common, they are usually never “normal” and treating the problem may help you or your cat never experience hairballs again.

I am here for all of your pet questions and concerns

Alisha Spivey, DVM


University Veterinary Hospital