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What is a cat hairball and why do cats get them?

Hairballs are those horrible clods of slimy fur which somehow always appear on your carpet just before you are expecting company. These gross parcels of cat fur are something that many cat owners find themselves dealing with, especially if their cat is one of the more fastidious groomers.


How do cat hairballs form?

tabby and white cat outside licking paw

Although rather unpleasant to humans, coughing up a hairball is normal to a cat. It can even be considered a consequence of good personal hygiene.

During the grooming process, the barbs on a cat’s tongue comb through the fur and remove any loose hair, dirt and debris. Normally, any fur that is swallowed during this process makes its way through the digestive system and is removed harmlessly from the body in the faeces.

As cats are unable to digest hair, if enough is swallowed, rather than expelling it in faeces, it can build up in the stomach or even in the oesophagus and form itself into clumps or balls. These balls have to come out somehow and if they are not passed via the digestive system, your cat deals with this by in effect ‘vomiting’ the fur back up.


How do you know a hairball is coming? 

tabby cat grooming leg outside

When doing their best to expel a hairball, cats can make all manner of noises. Some will publicly cry loudly, whereas some will prefer to perform the process in private. What is commonly noticed by owners is a loud retching and yacking type of noise before the ball appears.

Your cat can look quite uncomfortable when bringing up a hairball and it can be distressing to see. However, most cats will successfully produce their parcel without too much delay or further drama.

Hairballs are generally about an inch long, but can be as long as five inches and an inch thick. They are usually a similar colour to your cat’s fur, but slightly darker, due to food and other gastric secretions from the digestive system.


How can you prevent cat hairballs?

white cat licking paw

Help your cat manage its fur intake by regularly giving them a groom. This will help keep your cat’s coat in good condition and reduce the amount of work your cat has to do to keep it clean and tidy and minimise the amount of fur that will get swallowed.

If your cat is not used to being brushed, start gradually by giving just a couple of strokes with a brush and slowly build up to giving your cat brief but regular grooming sessions. With time and patience most cats will allow their owners to give regular grooming sessions.

There are products on the market aimed at preventing hairballs or designed to help them pass through the system but you should always talk to your vet first before trying them.

Although producing hairballs is a normal part of cat life, if your cat starts to have difficulty when coughing them up, takes longer than usual to spit them up or is producing them more frequently, it would be worth a trip to your vet. Similarly if you see excessive amounts of fur in their faeces, your cat becomes constipated or lethargic or they start to lose their appetite you should also seek veterinary advice.

For more information about brushing your cat, visit our cat grooming page.

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