What Does a Cat Hairball Look Like?

Passing a hairball can be a very unpleasant experience for a cat.  In addition, cleaning up a hairball can be a putrid experience for a cat owner.  No one likes to deal with a hairball, but what is the difference between a hairball and regular vomit anyway? There are a few key distinguishing factors that will help you to identify if the regurgitation your cat spit up is, in fact, a hairball. 

If you have ever wondered, “What does a cat hairball look like?” you are not alone. This guide will cover everything you need to know about hairballs in cats and provide tips on treatment methods for further prevention. 

Size and Shape

Despite their name, hairballs are not actually a ball at all.  Instead, hairballs are long and cylindrical. While hairballs will differ in size, a typical hairball will be about the size of your finger.  Depending on the cat, and the amount of hair that is regurgitated, hairballs can be as small as a pinky or as large as a middle or index finger.  Occasionally cats will regurgitate some sort of mucus or vomit with hair in it, but a true hairball will be somewhere in the range of the sizes listed above.  

Consistency and Color

Hairballs can vary in texture and color, but typically they will be some version of brown, green, and/or orange, as the hairball itself is a mixture of stomach acid, mucus and of course hair.  The hair will sometimes get mixed with food in the stomach and take on the color and consistency of whatever a cat may have had to eat on the day the hairball is regurgitated. As far as consistency, typically hairballs are slimy and coarse due to the large amount of hair. The introduction of mucus as the hairball is pushed out of the esophagus will give the hairball a slimy yellow hue.  Hairballs will look and feel slimy and limp while still maintaining a somewhat consistent shape.   

Cause and Production

Typically hairballs are the result of indigestion paired with the consumption of too much hair.  Large clumps of hair that cannot be passed through the digestive tract become lodged in the stomach, which then causes indigestion.  This indigestion forces the clump of hair that is deposited in the stomach out through the esophagus. Hairballs are usually passed with intense cat coughing or gagging, and it is crucial to monitor your cat if you hear this action taking place.  While it is uncommon, hairballs could get lodged in the throat of a cat causing blockages which would need to be dealt with immediately.

Frequency and Density

Cats should not produce hairballs with any amount of frequency.  The most hairballs a cat should produce in a year span is two. If your cat produces hairballs with any regularity, it is vital to take your cat to the vet.  Hairballs can be bothersome for a cat and can cause advanced medical complications if not treated. Remember that not all regurgitation is a hairball, even if there is hair in your cat’s vomit.  The density of a hairball will be thicker and more substantial than the consistency of a typical regurgitation. While regurgitation of any kind can be alarming, hairballs must be treated with attention and care.

Treatment and Prevention

There are several prevention and treatment methods for hairballs.  First, grooming your cat is an essential step in hairball prevention.  While your cat is an expert in self-care, grooming himself with his tongue is precisely how your cat swallows fur in the first place.  The small hooks on a cat’s tongue are perfect for coming through and dislodging matted fur. However, if the fur is swallowed too often, it will gather into a clump in the digestive tract that will inevitably cause a hairball.  

Regular brushing is an effective way to remove excess fur from your cat’s coat, which will prevent too much loose fur from being swallowed when your cat is grooming himself.  For best practices on how to treat hairballs, it is highly recommended to consult with your veterinarian. While there are home remedies available to treat hairballs like adding oil to a cat’s diet, it is best to consult a medical professional with a knowledge of your cat’s medical history.    

Hairballs can be identified by their structure, color, size, and consistency.  There are ways to tell if your cat is on the verge of experiencing a possible hairball attack.  A lack of appetite, lethargy, and coughing/hacking may be signs that a hairball is on the way.  If you notice these symptoms in your cat remain calm and consult your vet. Usually, hairballs pass on their own without complication, but it is essential to monitor your cat’s behavior if you believe a hairball is in the works.  Hairballs are not uncommon and are an unfortunate part of feline existence, but with the right knowledge of what a hairball looks like and how to treat them when they arise, they should pose no serious threat to you or your cat.




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