Written by Dr. Leslie Brooks, DVM
If you have a cat, you know about hairballs. Hairballs are common and they can be really frustrating to have to clean up all the time. In this article we will discuss why cats get hairballs, the difference between vomiting up hairballs and coughing, and what you can do to try to decrease how often your cat produces hairballs for you to clean up.
Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?
Cats are great at grooming themselves and keeping their fur nice and clean. But oftentimes they end up swallowing much of the fur in the process. Since cats’ digestive systems can’t break down and digest the fur, the fur clump tends to just sit and clump up in the stomach, accumulating into a ball.
Once this ball of fur becomes big enough, your cat’s stomach gets irritated by it and tries to expel it out. This is when you notice your cat vomiting up the hairball. Or you may not see your cat do it, but you may just find hairballs lying around the house – or worse – step in them.
The hairballs are easy to identify because they look either like tubular clumps of fur (the shape of the esophagus they come up through) or like a mixture of vomit and fur.
Long-haired cats get hairballs more often than short-haired cats because they have so much long, thick fur.
What is also important to know, though, is the difference between coughing and vomiting up a hairball. Oftentimes cat parents will say my cat coughs up hairballs. But the reality is that they do not actually cough them up. Cats vomit up hairballs because these clumps of fur come out of their stomach.
A cough in a cat is very different than vomiting up a hairball. In fact, if your cat is coughing, that is a reason to make an appointment with a veterinarian.
Cat Coughing vs. Cat Vomiting
What does a cat cough sound like? When a cat coughs, they are coughing because of something affecting their airways, or respiratory system- their throat, trachea, lungs, or bronchi. But hairballs do not accumulate within their airways. Hairballs sit in their stomachs. When you see a hairball lying on the floor, it is because your cat’s stomach became irritated by it, which stimulated your cat to vomit the hairball out of their stomach, through their esophagus, and onto your floor.
Vomiting involves active abdominal contractions. So, when your cat is vomiting, you will see their entire body almost convulse in a repetitive pattern, their throat pulse in and out, and then they will lift up their head, open their mouth, and expel the contents of their stomach, whether that is food, liquid, or fur.
On the other hand, when a cat is coughing, they usually sit or lie down, extend their head and neck out horizontally in front of them, and make a dry, harsh, throaty sound. Nothing will be produced and they will not leave any stomach contents or any hairballs behind. A coughing cat is a cause for concern and a reason to schedule an appointment with a veterinarian.
For further clarification, here are two videos that show the difference between a cat vomiting up a hairball and a cat coughing:
Cat Hairball Remedies
While nothing will completely prevent your cat from vomiting up hair balls, there are some things you can do that may help decrease how often they happen.
Brush your cat often. Brushing your cat regularly will help get rid of any shedding fur and prevent them from swallowing too much of it in the first place. Brushing on at least a daily basis is a good place to start.
Take your cat to a groomer. If you have a long-haired cat, such as a Persian, you may need to develop a relationship with a groomer. These cats benefit from professional grooms once every few months.
Laxatone for cats. Laxatone is a safe medication you can give to your cat to help them pass the hairballs through their system. It is a laxative and lubricant, which allows the ingested fur to pass gradually throughout their intestines instead of piling up in the stomach. It is also very easy to give to your cat and many cats enjoy the taste of it.
Cat hairball food. There are a variety of food options available for cats that help decrease the frequency of hairballs. These foods have a little higher fiber content, which helps your cat’s digestive tract push the hair out of the stomach and through the entire length of their intestines.