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Hairball Facts and Fallacies

Hairballs (scientific term: trichobezoars) are quite common in cats. Sadly, they are the source of many misconceptions among the people who live with feline companions....

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Oct 20th 2008


Hairballs (scientific term: trichobezoars) are quite common in cats. Sadly, they are the source of many misconceptions among the people who live with feline companions. In this post I attempt to set the record straight about these misunderstood and quite unsavory moist clumps of hair.

All cats groom. As they do this, they swallow hair. (Hairless cats such as Sphynxes, of course, are exceptions.) Most cats move swallowed hair through their digestive systems and pass it in their feces. Some cats, however, are not able to move the hair through their digestive systems in a normal fashion. This causes hair to clump together in the stomach or intestines–a hairball. Most hairballs are vomited onto the floor, where they are later stepped on by someone living in the house. Rarely, hairballs can cause intestinal obstructions and other problems.

Let’s move on to some hairball fallacies.

  • Fallacy: cats cough up hairballs. Coughing is a function of the respiratory system. Hairballs are located in the digestive system. Cats do not cough up hairballs. Hairballs are produced by vomiting. Vomiting and coughing can be hard to tell apart in cats. However, if your cat regularly seems to be unproductively trying to bring up hairballs, he is probably coughing. Feline asthma, respiratory infections, and heart conditions are common causes of coughing.
  • Fallacy: long-haired cats (or cats that groom excessively) are more likely to develop hairballs. All cats consume hair when they groom. It is the cat’s ability to pass the hair through the digestive system, not the amount of hair consumed, that determines whether a hairball forms.
  • Fallacy: hairballs are not serious medical problems. Evidence presented at the Wild West Veterinary Conference last Friday shows that 80% of hairballs develop because of stomach inflammation. In most instances, hairballs are a symptom of a serious underlying condition such as infiltrative bowel disease.
  • Any cat that produces hairballs (or that appears to be trying to produce hairballs) should go to the vet. The problem could be more serious than you think.