Hairballs are one of the most common cause of vomiting in cats.  For some cats it is only a problem during the shedding months in spring and autumn, whereas other cats, particularly long-haired varieties, will find hairballs a constant irritant.

While treatment is fairly straight forward, occasionally hairballs can cause more serious health problems requiring veterinary attention.

Cause of hairballs

Hairballs are created as a cat grooms.  The loose fur is caught on the rough surface of the cats tongue and is subsequently swallowed.  Usually the ingested hair will pass through the gastrointestinal tract without issue, however occasionally it may accumulate in the stomach or intestines causing a blockage.  As food cannot pass through, it is vomited back up the oesophagus instead.

While a cats gut is designed to digest fur (it’s own as well as that of prey animals), repeated occurrences of hairballs may be cause for concern, and should be looked at by a veterinarian to rule out other, more serious causes.

Essentially, frequent hairballs can be caused by two processes:

1. Increase in hair intake due to:

  • Increased grooming due to skin irritations
  • Increased grooming due to behavioural problems, such as anxiety or stress
  • Additional hair being shed due to seasonal loss of fur, usually in spring and autumn.

2. Problems with hair moving through the gastrointestinal tract can be due to:

  • Mobility disorders
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Neoplasia, eg. Lymphoma

Signs of hairballs

Symptoms of hairballs may include:

  • Retching and gagging
  • Vomiting
  • Reduced appetite
  • Constipation
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Diarrhoea.

If symptoms last longer than 24 hours, veterinary treatment may be required.

Treatment of hairballs

Hairballs are a normal phenomenon in cats and there are many ways to manage them. The three most common remedies to help decrease the frequency or size of hairballs are hairball lubricants, fibre supplements, and improved grooming. The most important thing to remember about any hairball remedy is that it is not a cure. Any steps that you take merely help to control a normal process.


Numerous lubricants are available, also called laxatives, which essentially are flavoured petroleum pastes. Some cats love these products and readily lick them from your finger. Others refuse them or try to shake the lubricant off of their paws. These products can be used two to three times a week to effect.

Mineral oil is not recommended as a treatment because of the associated risk of aspiration pneumonia.


There are several new diets are on the market that claim to be effective in reducing hairballs. These diets contain fibre, which helps promote normal bowel contractions thus assists the passage of food and swallowed hair through the gastrointestinal tract. Fibre helps with water reabsorption during digestion and helps by means of a mildly abrasive action to cleanse the lining of the intestines.


Increasing the frequency of brushing, combing, and bathing reduces the amount of hair that your cat will shed daily, thus decreasing the amount he or she will ingest during self grooming. Some owners of long-haired cats have their cat’s hair shaved in an attempt to reduce hairballs. Large hairballs can even become impacted and require surgical removal. They can also be associated with other gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease.

A final word about vomiting… 

A cat that vomits frequently is likely to have other problems and a veterinarian should assess the situation. Vomiting is a non-specific clinical sign that can be linked to many conditions, including food intolerance, the ingestion of foreign substances, viral infection, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and cancer. To obtain a diagnosis, your veterinarian may do blood tests and take X-rays. If an answer is not found, more advanced diagnostic testing such as a barium X-ray series, endoscopy, and surgical exploratory and biopsy may be needed.

Monitor your cat. Occasional hairballs are normal; frequent vomiting or gagging is not.