Hairballs in Cats: When Normal Turns Dangerous

Most cats vomit hairballs from time to time. On an occasional basis, hairballs are perfectly normal.

Hairballs in Cats

Cats that vomit hairballs frequently may be suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or other illnesses.

However, when vomiting hairballs becomes a frequent occurrence, there may be cause for concern. Frequent vomiting, with or without hairballs, can by a symptom of serious health issues, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

In addition, hairballs can also cause other health problems, such as intestinal obstructions. In other words, these hairballs can actually get stuck in the intestines. When that happens, surgery may become necessary to retrieve them.

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Cats have small barbs on their tongues. These barbs are the reason your cat’s tongue feels so rough when he licks your arm. The barbs also are quite good at catching hair as your cat is grooming himself. Eventually, the hair gets swallowed and this causes hairballs to occur.

Hair is not particularly easy for your cat to digest and normally it simply passes through the intestinal tract and exits in the feces. Occasionally, rather than passing through the intestinal tract, the hairball may be vomited back up instead.

Vomiting Hairballs – How Often is Too Often for a Cat to Vomit a Hairball?

If your cat is vomiting more often than once or twice a month, there is reason for concern. This is true whether you see hairballs in the vomit or not. If your cat is vomiting often, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to have your cat examined.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Hairballs in Cats?

Keeping your cat well groomed can be a big deterrent to developing hairballs. Regular brushing and combing can remove the loose hair in your cat’s hair coat and reduce the amount of hair swallowed. It will not, however, keep your cat from shedding. So constant regular grooming is necessary. For some cats, this may mean brushing and/or combing thoroughly on a daily basis.

There are other remedies that may be used for hairballs also. Various diets are available that claim to be effective in controlling hairballs in cats. However, many veterinarians are not convinced of the efficacy of these diets to actually control hairballs for most cats.

There are also many products that attempt to lubricate the hairball and allow it to pass through the intestinal tract more easily. These include remedies like Laxatone®, Cat Lax®, Petromalt® and many others. These remedies work with a varying degree of success. Remember that if your cat is vomiting hairballs frequently, it may be because of inflammation within the intestinal tract or even a physical obstruction caused by the hairball. If so, treatment with these remedies will not likely be successful and may delay diagnosis and proper treatment of your cat’s illness.

Though occasional hairballs are normal in cats, cats that frequently vomit hairballs may have health issues that need attention. Some of these health issues can be quite serious if left untreated. If your cat is vomiting regularly, always err on the side of caution and have him examined by your veterinarian.

About Lorie Huston, DVM

Lorie Huston, DVM has written 88 posts in this blog.

Lorie Huston is a veterinarian with 20+ years of experience with dogs and cats. She is also a talented free-lance author and blogger and has contributed to numerous publications, including Pet Sitter's WORLD, FIDOFriendly, Dancing Dog Blog, Dawg Business and many others. Lorie is the featured pet care writer at, a contributing writer in Dog and Cat Diseases and Conditions at and the National Pet Health Examiner at In addition, she is a host of the popular podcast/review site, Animal Cafe.