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Cats have plenty of mystifying behaviors (what’s the deal with them pushing everything off the counter?!) but one of the grosser feline issues is, without a doubt, cat hairballs.

If you’re a cat owner, chances are you’ve seen your pet vomit up at least one hairball—and if you haven’t yet, trust us, you will.

But what, exactly, are cat hairballs? What are the causes and symptoms? And, most importantly, how can you prevent cat hairballs—and make sure your cat stays healthy, happy, and hairball-free?

What are cat hairballs—and what causes them?

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First things first. Before we take a deep dive into all-things-hairballs, let’s first cover what hairballs are and where they come from.

For the record, hairballs aren’t round like a ball. Because they pass through the cat’s esophagus, they’re usually thin and oblong. “Hairballs occur when there is an accumulation in the stomach of the hair cats ingest when they groom themselves,” says veterinarian Robin Downing, DVM, hospital director of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, CO.

The more hair your cat has, the more susceptible they are to hairballs. “It seems that hairballs are more frequent in cats with medium or long hair, but short-haired cats can also develop them,” says Dr. Downing. Makes sense, right?

A moisture-deficient diet can also cause an increase of hairballs. AKA, if your cat seems to be getting a lot of hairballs, check their food. “Dry kibble contains nowhere near enough moisture for proper passage of hairballs and other food particles,” says Turnera Croom, DVM, a veterinarian with a mobile veterinary practice in Southwest Michigan.

In fact, issues with the GI tract are a major cause of hairballs in cats. “Typically, the feline GI tract can handle a moderate amount of hair, but an inflamed gut, combined with dehydration, is a sure-fire way to have hairball issues,” Dr. Croom adds.

What are the symptoms of cat hairballs?

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Now that you know what cat hairballs are (and where they come from), let’s cover how to spot them in your cat.

Obviously, if you see your cat vomit a ball of hair, your cat has hairballs. But there can be symptoms before your cat actually passes the hairball—and, in order to keep your pet safe and comfortable, you need to know what to look out for.

According to PetMD, symptoms of cat hairballs include:

  • Gagging, Retching, or Coughing. In order to get hairballs out of their system, cats will gag, retch, cough—pretty much anything they need to do to get that hairball up and out. It can be slightly alarming, but unless they continue the behavior for an extended period of time, it’s nothing to worry about.
  • Vomiting. Most cats expel hairballs through vomit. If your cat is vomiting, keep an eye out for hairballs.
  • Lack of appetite. A hairball that gets trapped in your cat’s stomach can lead to loss of appetite.
  • Diarrhea or constipation. Cat hairballs can cause both loose stools and the inability to pass stools, so it’s important to keep an eye out for both.
  • Sudden change in energy/lethargy. Again, if your cat can’t expel a hairball, it can lead them to a sudden drop in energy—and make them appear tired and lethargic.

Typically, hairballs are a harmless nuisance that your cat will be able to pass quickly. But that’s not always the case— and that can lead to potentially serious health issues. If you notice your cat has ongoing hairball symptoms but isn’t able to pass the hairball (either through vomiting or defecating), it’s important to get in touch with your vet to make sure the problem doesn’t progress to something more serious.

“One problem that can arise, if a cat has an underlying disease in the gastro-intestinal tract, is that the hair accumulates in the stomach and forms a large ball that cannot pass in either direction,” says Dr. Downing. “This is called a ‘trichobezoar,’ and the presence of one is a surgical emergency…If a cat has a history of vomiting up hairballs and then goes on to stop eating, or if they retch and nothing comes up, then it is time to call the veterinarian.”

Is there a way to prevent cat hairballs (or at least reduce their frequency)?

Read more here