We all know that cats sometimes throw up hairballs. But hairballs aren’t the only reason cats vomit. Don’t assume that vomiting is normal for your cat, even if it’s been going on for months or years.
Consult your veterinarian if your cat has any of these symptoms:
Hairballs (trichobezoars in medical speak) are wads of hair in the digestive tract. Cats swallow loose hair when they lick their fur. Hair usually passes through the digestive tract without causing any problem. But sometimes hair packs together into a mass in the stomach or intestine.
A hairball is usually shaped like a cylinder. If you see one on your favorite rug, you might mistake it at first for feces. Hairballs are often about the same size and shape as a log of cat poop. But if you look at a hairball closely you’ll see that it’s made of tightly packed hair (and it doesn’t smell like poop).
We don’t really know how often cats normally vomit up hairballs. In an informal poll at a cat clinic in England, cat owners reported that nearly three-fourths of their cats had never vomited up a hairball. About 1 in 6 cats expelled a hairball once a year, and 1 in 10 cats expelled a hairball at least twice a year. Owners reported that long-haired cats brought up hairballs more frequently than short-haired cats did.
Hairballs that aren’t vomited up or passed in the stool can block the digestive tract. Symptoms include vomiting, decreased appetite, and signs of belly discomfort (which can be easy to miss in cats). Cats with intestinal blockages may need surgery.
Causes of Hairballs
Healthy cats occasionally bring up hairballs just because they’re cats and they groom themselves. But sometimes hairballs are a sign of another problem. Cats are more likely to have problems with hairballs if they swallow excessive amounts of hair or have a disorder that slows the movement of material through the digestive tract.
Fleas and itchy skin conditions can lead to excessive grooming. Cats also overgroom in response to pain or stress. More grooming means more hair swallowed and an increased chance of hairballs.
The symptoms of digestive tract diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and intestinal lymphoma (a type of cancer) can be mistaken for hairballs. In one study, some cats with hairballs blocking the intestines also had serious intestinal disease. These diseases affect the way food and hair move through the digestive tract and may put cats at higher risk of hairballs. Hairballs can also irritate the digestive tract, causing inflammation.
Ask your veterinarian before treating your cat’s vomiting or hacking with over-the-counter remedies or hairball diets. Hairballs might not be responsible for the symptoms.
Brushing the coat to remove loose hair is safe and might be all that’s needed to reduce hairballs in healthy cats. Long-haired cats that regularly bring up hairballs may benefit from having their fur trimmed.
If you’re noticing more hairballs than usual, ask your veterinarian to check your cat for underlying problems. If the symptoms point to an intestinal disease, your cat might need a series of diagnostic tests (such as bloodwork, ultrasound, and possibly a biopsy of the intestines).
1. Cannon M. Hair balls in cats: a normal nuisance or a sign that something is wrong? J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15(1):21-29.
2. Norsworthy GD, Scot Estep J, Kiupel M, Olson JC, Gassler LN. Diagnosis of chronic small bowel disease in cats: 100 cases (2008-2012). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;243(10):1455-1461.
Photo by Karin Laurila
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM