Hairballs – what are they and why do they occur?

1st April 2017

Hairballs can be distressing to both owner and animal – they’re also messy to clean up, so any help to treat and prevent them is welcome.

At Bollington Veterinary Centre we come across this problem in all sorts of cats, but especially those with long hair.


What are the signs?

The most common signs we see include:

  • Retching and gagging – you’ll hear the retching first, often followed by the release of a small volume of white phlegm, froth or brown fluid.
  • Vomiting – look for food, mucus and hairballs (often resembling faeces) in the vomit.
  • Reduced appetite – many cats with hairballs have mild irritation to the stomach, and will tend to eat less.
  • Constipation – hairballs can partially obstruct the intestines, so producing a build-up of faeces in the small intestine could cause constipation.

If your cat shows any of these signs repeatedly for more than 24 hours, please call us. In the severest of situations, a hairball can cause a blockage of the intestine.

It is very important to get your cat checked by one of our vets to rule out any other medical problems with similar signs. Some of the signs could, for example, be confused with kidney disease, cancer or an obstructed bladder.


What is a hairball?

A hairball is as it sounds, a ball of hair. When a cat grooms, their rough tongue will comb and remove all of the loose hair in their coat. This hair is caught on the surface of the tongue and swallowed.

Most hair tends to pass through the gut without a problem, but sometimes it rolls up into a mass and accumulates in the stomach, creating a blockage. When this happens, both food and the hairball is then vomited back.


What causes a hairball?

A cat’s intestine is designed to cope with and process hair and fur naturally – they would normally swallow lots of it when eating their prey.

However, in certain situations, the fur gets stuck and hairballs form. Some of the common reasons they form include: 

  • Skin problems – anything making the skin itch will make a cat lick and groom excessively, and so swallow lots more hair.
  • Stress – when cats become anxious, they’ll often develop a habit of licking and grooming (look for areas of hair loss on the inner thighs and belly). The excessive licking and grooming results in excess hair being swallowed.
  • Gastro-intestinal disease – such as inflammatory bowel disease and cancer, will affect the way that food and hair passes through the intestines. When it causes the gut movement to slow down, the hair balls form.


How are hairballs treated?

At Bollington Veterinary Centre we can suggest a variety of treatments.

  • Laxatives – these help lubricate and move the hairball through the intestine.
  • Prescription foods – we can supply you with specialist foods with added fibre to help bind the hair and stimulate the intestine to remove the hairballs.
  • Grooming- by brushing the coat regularly with specially designed brushes to remove as much loose hair as possible, you’ll cut down the amount of hair that can be swallowed.
  • Diagnose the cause – make sure you book an appointment with our vets to allow us to work out what is the underlying problem.


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