All cats get hairballs, regardless of whether they have short or long fur. Passing a hairball can be an unpleasant experience for cats, and they sometimes need assistance.
To help your cat pass a furball safely, make sure it has plenty of fiber in its diet. Instead of two large meals a day, feed it little and often. Larger kibble is also easier to digest. A gastric lubricant can sweep hair through the gastrointestinal tract, as can malty treats, cat grass, and natural stool softeners, such as olive oil, oily fish, and pumpkin. Give your cat plenty of water, and make sure it exercises regularly.
Cats groom themselves meticulously, so the occasional hairball is perfectly normal. However, if your cat coughs up hair regularly, this may indicate that your cat has a skin condition, irritable bowel, or parasites.
How Do Cats Pass Hairballs?
According to the Journal of Feline Medicine, 10% of short-haired cats and 20% of long-haired cats bring up a hairball once a month. Cats either vomit the hairball as a thin, tube-like clump or poop it out.
Cats use their rough-textured tongues to dislodge dirt and remove dead hair, making way for new growth. Cats spend 25% of their lives grooming themselves, so it’s no surprise that some of this dirt and fur ends up in their stomachs.
Over time, this fur starts to clump together in the stomach, forming a trichobezoar (hairball). Once the fur has begun to develop into a clump, it becomes difficult to poop out, so the cat has no option but to vomit it out.
One of the reasons cats cough up furballs is that they don’t have the same amount of ‘housekeeper contractions’ that other animals do. These help to sweep undigestible matter through the stomach and out through the bowels.
Cats do have these contractions, but not to the same extent as other animal species. Most of the hair will be pulled through the intestines, but some will clump together in the cat’s stomach and get coughed up.
How Often Do Cats Produce Hairballs?
It’s common to think that cats frequently produce hairballs. But a normal cat hairball frequency consists of once a month. Some only have a couple a year. In most cases, you won’t even realize that your cat has a hairball, as it’ll get excreted out in the back yard or litter tray. Symptoms that your cat needs to cough up a furball include:
- Frequent gagging, retching, or hacking
- Dry heaving
- Hunched position close to the ground
- Stretching of the neck
The symptoms of hairballs vary in cats depending on how large the trichobezoar has become and how long it takes your cat to rid its body of the hairball.
How Long Does It Take for a Cat to Pass a Hairball?
Usually, fur passes straight through the gastrointestinal tract and comes out as a stool. The digestive process takes around 7-12 hours in cats.
Other times, hair collects in the stomach and forms into a hairball. This process takes slightly longer, but healthy hairballs should pass within 24-48 hours.
If your cat shows symptoms that last longer than this, it’s likely suffering from a blockage or a health condition that’s preventing the hairball from sweeping through the digestive tract.
Is It Normal for Cats to Poop Out Hairballs?
It’s more normal for cats to poop out hairballs than it is for them to vomit them. If your cat has to vomit a hairball, it means the hair’s built up for too long in the stomach. This isn’t anything to worry about in most cases, as long as your cat seems otherwise healthy.
When hair comes out through your cat’s feces, it emerges as a firm, long tube that looks like poop at first glance. However, it won’t smell as bad as normal feces, and it’ll consist of tightly-packed hair you can pull apart.
Are Hairballs Dangerous for Cats?
While it’s normal for cats to bring up the occasional hairball, it’s abnormal for them to produce one every few weeks or consistently for more than 48 hours at a time. If your cat produces frequent hairballs, it could be the sign of:
- Skin and fur conditions
- Food intolerances
- Overgrooming because of stress or pain
- Digestive tract diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease or intestinal lymphoma
As described by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, a wad of matted hair poses a serious health threat if it grows too large. If the hairball remains trapped in the cat’s intestines or stomach for a long period of time, it may mineralize and become hard. This will be painful for the cat.
If the hairball is small enough to pass into the small intestine but too large for it to come out through the feces, it’s likely to become tightly lodged, causing a serious problem. While rare, only surgery can rectify this.
Similarly, if the hairball becomes too hard, there’s an increased risk of it getting stuck while the cat vomits it, causing damage to the esophagus. Signs that a hairball’s causing your cat a problem include:
- Prolonged gagging
- Gasping for air
- Reduced appetite
- Sudden bouts of sneezing that don’t stop
- Nasal discharge
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Chewing on grass
- A swollen stomach
To be on the safe side, take your cat to a vet to make sure it’s not suffering from a potentially harmful blockage or underlying health condition.
Are Hairballs Painful for Cats?
Large hairballs can be difficult for your cat to pass, causing discomfort and distress. They can also be painful. If too much hair builds up and can’t be passed out through the cat’s feces, a large hairball will form, obstructing the cat’s gastrointestinal tract. This is likely to cause abdominal pain and swelling.
Why Won’t My Cat Pass a Hairball?
If your cat can’t pass a hairball properly, it’s most likely constipated. The cat won’t only have difficulty expelling the hairball from its system but will also struggle to remove food. Unfortunately, this could quickly turn into a problem.
If your cat can’t vomit the hairball, it could become too large to come out of the cat’s system through its poop. Constipation commonly affects:
- Older cats, as the movement of their digestive tract slows down
- Cats with a painful condition, such as arthritis. This makes pooping uncomfortable
- Cats with not enough fiber in their diets
Impaired digestive motility is another reason your cat struggles to pass a hairball. This causes food and hair to move too slowly through the gastrointestinal tract. Causes of this include:
- Abdomen injury
- Blockage from a foreign object, tumor, or mass
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Gastrointestinal disease
- Neurological conditions
You might notice that your cat attempts to vomit the hairball, but nothing comes out. In this case, you should take your cat to the vet so they can check for any of these health conditions.
What Will Help a Cat Pass a Hairball?
If your cat is having trouble passing a hairball, there are ways you can improve your cat’s digestive health and make furballs easier to pass. These methods include:
High-Fiber Cat Food
Cats that produce regular hairballs may be lacking dietary fiber. Fiber helps sweep hair through the gastrointestinal tract, preventing it from building up and developing into a hairball. Because cats are obligate carnivores, there’s a misconception that cats don’t need fiber.
Wild cats get fiber by eating all parts of their prey, including the bones, flesh, stomach contents, and organs. Domestic cats don’t need to hunt to get food, so it’s up to their owners to provide enough fiber in their diet.
But how does hairball cat food work? Well, it’s all about the ingredients they’re made with. According to the Journal of Nutritional Science, cellulose, sugarcane fiber, and beet pulp can all aid in the removal of furballs.
The fiber pulls the hair through the gut and intestines so that it can be excreted more easily. These ingredients have the following benefits:
- Cellulose: not very fermentable. It passes through the GI tract quickly, pushing fur through. However, it can also sometimes cause loose stools.
- Beet pulp: moderately fermentable. It passes through the GI tract at a moderate pace, with very few side effects.
Cats don’t need much fiber, but a little bit goes a long way in preventing hairballs. It should also help remove hair before it turns into a blockage. Look for fibrous cat food that contains around 3% added fiber. Specialist “furball management” cat foods will often have added fiber.
Feed Little and Often
Cats empty their stomachs more easily when provided with small, regular meals. However, most owners feed them two large meals a day, which may not help your cat’s digestive system run as effectively as it could.
Cats that are fed smaller meals can sweep more fur through the stomach and into the intestines. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that feeding your cat little and often is better for feline health. This is because it:
- Mimics their natural tendency to catch regular meals and graze on food
- Can help with weight management
- Provides the cat with a steady source of energy
- May improve their behavior and reduce stress levels
To improve your cat’s digestive health and reduce the number of furballs, feed it 4-8 small meals a day. If your cat prefers dry kibble, leave out a large bowl for it to graze on throughout the day – just make sure your chosen food is complete and balanced.
Cat fur isn’t easily digestible, so you might be able to expedite the process through diet. According to the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, cats that eat larger-sized kibble are more likely to poop out fur than cough it up.
If you look at specialist kibble for cats with furball problems, almost all are larger than regular kibble. But why does large kibble prevent furballs? It’s because cats have to chew larger kibble for much longer.
While chewing, cats produce more gastric juices, thereby helping the gastrointestinal tract (GI) to work more efficiently. The fur is more likely to enter the cat’s intestines and be expelled in its poop.
Your cat might be reluctant to chew a larger-sized biscuit, so consider mixing its old and new kibble together until your cat feels comfortable.
Hairball pastes, gels, and lubricants can help ease the passage of hairballs through the gastrointestinal tract. Most store-bought hairball lubricants contain vegetable oils that allow hair to pass easily through the system. They also have bioMOS, a probiotic supplement that encourages a healthy gut flora to improve digestion. Other ingredients that are kind to a cat’s GI tract include:
- Marshmallow root
- Aloe vera leaf
- Chamomile flower
- Licorice root
- Ginger root
These botanicals all aid digestion and support regular bowel movements. By placing a dollop of the gel on your cat’s paw, it won’t be able to resist licking it off. Some cats also enjoy the taste and are happy to lick it straight off your fingers. You can also add liquid lubricants stealthily to your cat’s meal without it realizing it’s there.
Malty treats work similarly to gastric lubricants, improving the natural passage of ingested hair through the gastrointestinal tract. Malt lubricates the cat’s stomach, helping fur pass through the GI tract more efficiently.
While malt pasts are effective, they’re not always easy to administer. That’s why malty kibble-style treats are an excellent alternative. They are made of malt extract, oils, and fats to help lubricate the cat’s stomach. The flavor of malt also appeals to cats. Malt treats also help:
- Support the passage of swallowed hairs
- Transport food and other hard-to-digest items
- Provide energy
Look out for malty treats formulated specifically for furball management. Elm bark and grass are other healthy, natural ingredients that sweep fur through the system. For best results, look for malt treats that also contain these things.
Natural Stool Softeners
If your cat’s stool has hardened within the body, it won’t be able to poop out its furballs. Vomiting may not produce the desired result, either. The waste will instead be released in small quantities, which increases the risk of the hair building up. It’s also likely to be painful.
Thankfully, there are several natural remedies you can use to soften your cat’s stools and encourage the hairballs to pass. These include:
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens contain lots of fiber. When mixed with cat food, it will stimulate your cat’s digestion.
- Olive oil: Mix two teaspoons with your cat’s food to create a mild laxative.
- Oily fish: Canned fish is a natural source of healthy oils. Treat your cat to the occasional sardine or tuna fish to keep its bowel movements regular.
- Tinned pumpkin: Tinned pumpkin acts as a natural laxative. Ensure it’s plain and not spiced, and offer it straight from the tin.
- Cow’s milk: Most cats are lactose intolerant, so their bodies will reject the milk and remove it as waste. This is a little bit risky, though, as it could cause diarrhea.
Providing your cat with enough water is crucial as dehydration can lead to irregular bowel movements or digestive issues.
Cats that are on a dry kibble diet or don’t have enough moisture in their food are more prone to hairballs, as their digestive tract works harder than it should. Dehydration has the potential to make your cat’s hairball problem worse. To ensure your cat gets enough water:
- Place 2-3 bowls of water in different rooms around the house
- Get an indoor fountain as cats enjoy drinking free-flowing water
- Change the water in your cat’s bowl regularly to ensure freshness
- If your cat struggles with mobility, you may need to bring the water bowl to the cat
You’ll find that providing your cat with enough water helps solve the hairball problem by ensuring they pass much more easily. Hydration also prevents constipation, which is another common reason why cats struggle to pass furballs.
However, if your cat refuses to drink water, switch to canned wet food for a few days to see if this helps. Alternatively, soak your cat’s dry food in water to improve its hydration levels.
Cats go to the toilet more regularly when they get enough exercise. Older cats, in particular, become more lazy and lethargic as they age, which increases the chances of constipation. This means the digestive system isn’t getting the workout it needs, causing too much hair to build up in the gastrointestinal tract.
Encourage your cat to move more by regularly playing with it. Cats enjoy laser pens, feathers on a string, and clockwork mice. Similarly, if your cat enjoys roaming and exploring outside, give it constant access via a cat flap to encourage it to exercise.
If your cat doesn’t want to play, place treats around the house so that your cat has to work harder to eat them.
Grass is one of the most effective plants in helping cats pass hairballs. Cats with a hairball that needs to come out commonly chew on grass. While the exact reason for this behavior is still unknown, it’s thought that cats eat grass to help them vomit.
Unfortunately, this can be dangerous as grass is often treated with chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides that are poisonous to cats. Many houseplants are also deadly to cats, so they shouldn’t eat those either. Instead, grow your own cat-safe grass for your feline to munch on whenever it needs help passing a hairball. To do so:
- Find a container and make some drainage holes almost to the top with moist potting soil.
- Place seeds on top of the soil.
- Place more potting soil over the seeds.
- Use warm tap water to water the soil and seeds. Keep them moist, but don’t overwater them.
- After around three days, the first shoots should appear.
- Put your container in an area that gets lots of sunlight and wait for the grass to grow.
- Once the shoots are long enough, put the grass in reach of your cat.
If your cat has difficulty passing a hairball, you can help it go to the toilet by stimulating elimination. Mother cats do this to their kittens by licking the anus of their young. You can replicate this process using the following steps:
- Dampen a soft towel or washcloth by running it under warm water.
- Place your cat in its litterbox and rub its anus gently with the cloth.
- Stimulate the anus with a steady, circular motion for one minute.
Once the anus starts to spasm, the colon has been successfully stimulated. This should encourage your cat to go to the toilet and eliminate its hairball.
How to Prevent Hairballs
While there are many methods you can use to help your cat pass a hairball, it’s a wise idea to take appropriate steps to prevent them from forming altogether. You can do this in the following ways:
To improve your cat’s coat and prevent loose hairs from getting stuck in its gastrointestinal tract, give your cat a regular brush. Not only can grooming reduce the number of hairballs your cat produces, but it stimulates the coat to produce natural oils, promoting better blood flow.
Long-haired cats, such as Persians and ragdolls, should have a daily brush, whereas short-haired cats should be fine with a groom a couple of times a week. When cats shed in between the winter and summer seasons, they’ll need a more frequent groom.
Similarly, schedule regular haircuts to remove loose, flyaway hairs and matted knots that cause havoc within your cat’s intestinal tract.
Itchy skin diseases increase the amount of hair your cat ingests. That’s because your cat spends most of its time biting and licking its skin to get relief. Fleas are the most common cause of itchy skin and frequently infest cats, especially those who spend long outdoors.
Shop-bought flea treatments aren’t always strong enough to get rid of your cat’s flea problem entirely, so have your vet administer one that’ll get to work quickly. There are also several natural flea remedies you can try, such as:
- Cedar chips
- Lemons and lemon balm
- Oregano oil
- Apple cider vinegar
- Chamomile tea
These treatments keep fleas away and soothe itchy skin.
Many cats overgroom when they feel stressed. They do this to comfort and soothe themselves. Unfortunately, cats hide their stress exceptionally well, so we often do things that upset our cats without even realizing it.
To reduce the risk of hairballs, it’s a good idea to minimize your cat’s exposure to stress triggers, which include:
- Changes to routine
- Boredom and loneliness
- Lack of territory
- Loud noises
- Unsanitary litter tray
- Lack of privacy
- Inappropriate handling
Maintaining a comfortable environment should help reduce your cat’s need to self-groom, minimizing the amount of hair it ingests.
While hairballs are normal, they can cause discomfort if they’re left to get worse. In most cases, cats sort themselves out, but there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of hairballs and make them easier for your cat to pass.