Hairballs in Cats: Causes & Treatments

There are few rites-of-passage that veteran cat owners know better than “the sound”the measured, increasingly-loud noises of a cat coughing up a hairball in the middle of the night can wake even the soundest sleeper. Barely awake, it’s usually immediately followed by a pet parent’s rush into a usually futile effort to spare their carpet from a wet clump of coughed-up fur. For many folks, the question remains: why do cats indulge in this admittedly stomach-turning feline ritual?

It may come as a surprise to learn that this irritating behavior is a perfectly normal, healthy mechanism for a cat to shed his excess hair after grooming. As much as he may make loud noises and dramatic back-hunching movements as he’s coughing, it’s a straightforward affair that, inevitably, helps him feel better. The first step to reducing these unsightly “gifts” and limiting their appearance is understanding why cats develop hairballs.

Feline Hairball Facts: Kitties Can’t Help It

While some cats may seem to plot certain mischievous behaviors – such as pushing his human’s belongings off a table edge, for instance – hairballs are not premeditated. He genuinely can’t help his hairballs any more than a person can avoid the urge to clear his or her throat when feeling congested. For anyone who’s ever cleaned out a hairbrush or looked down at the sink after shaving, it’s not strange to note quite a bit of hair or stubble left behind. Cats don’t have the benefit of grooming tools, and instead must rely upon their tongues and paws to keep their coat sleek, shiny, and free of debris. 

A cat feels a natural instinct to groom himself, whether it’s habitually, in an attempt to get debris out of his fur, or after a meal to clean up. It’s as normal to him as brushing one’s hair or teeth would be to his human counterparts, and hairballs are simply a way of life for him. In fact, watch his behavior directly after coughing up a hairball – he’ll likely seem perfectly fine, and might even act more energetic. He may even take off at a breakneck pace to zoom around the house – this is a latent instinctual behavior thought to separate a cat from biological evidence of his presence, thus keeping him safe from predator discovery. Incidentally, this same reasoning explains the occasional speed-racing through the halls immediately after he has used the litterbox.

Cat Got Your Tongue?

Cats of all sizes, lions included, groom one another to establish bonding and friendship within their chosen family, or pride. That means that your cat has likely licked your hand or arm at some point while cuddling in your lap, or greeting you after a long day. Anyone who’s owned or interacted with a cat has probably noticed how rough his tongue feels, particularly if he was insistent about the grooming. This sandpaper-like phenomena comes courtesy of small barbs on his tongue, called papillae, which face backwards in his mouth, towards the throat. In the wild, these hooks help remove meat from bones during feeding, and act as a sort of built-in comb for brushing fur clean. They’re extremely efficient, but in housecats, they can be a considerable disadvantage, particularly in long-haired breeds.

Hairballs in Cats: Causes & Treatments | Canna-PetThat’s because those hook-like papillae face backwards, and once a thread, hair, or other particle is taken into the mouth by licking, it’s very difficult or impossible for the cat to remove it. This is one of the primary reasons that vets recommend keeping thread-like objects like Christmas tinsel, string, ribbon, or yarn away from cats: they’re unable to “spit it out” if it gets caught in their papillae, and this can lead to choking or ingestion. A cat’s individual hairs can only grow so long or wide, but a length of nylon string doesn’t have those limitations. It can’t be digested, and will become dangerously tangled inside a cat’s intestines, necessitating surgical removal.

Why Do Cats Groom Themselves?

Cats groom for an almost endless list of reasons, such as:

  • Building companionship within their pride
  • Keeping their coat sleek and aerodynamic for hunting
  • Regulating body temperature by removing insulating dead fur
  • Removing dirt and debris that may irritate their skin or pull at fur
  • Dislodging parasites such as fleas, flea dirt, ticks, and mites
  • Self-soothing and stress relief

Even if pet parents take the time to groom their cat with an external tool (such as a mitt or rubber-noduled pet brush), they’ll still naturally groom themselves. It’s a habit that’s ingrained in their genetics as much as chasing bugs and mice, as well as a way to demonstrate their emotions. Depending on a cat’s temperament, owners may have seen him:

  • Lazily groom a paw as he’s relaxing on the couch (“I’m feeling good and unthreatened in this environment, so I can take the time to groom”)
  • Angrily groom his body where a person has touched him (“I did not want you to touch me right now and I’m going to wash your scent right off of my body to show my contempt”)

Feline folks may have also noticed their pet excitedly lick at the air, the couch, their arm, or anything in reach when his back is scratched just above the tail. This is actually an intriguing nerve cluster-behavior connection some cat behaviorists call the “lick spot.” While it’s not yet completely understood, it’s thought to be a leftover instinctual reaction from kittenhood. This back spot is a place where a mother cat would lick and groom while her kittens were feeding to encourage them to eat – hence the frantic licking.

Should I Stop My Cat From Grooming?

In general, grooming is an excellent indicator for overall health in your cat. As long as a cat’s coat is sleek and shiny, it means he feels well enough to groom himself regularly. In fact, vets typically recommend that cat owners bring their feline friends in immediately if their coats begin to look uncharacteristically dull, patchy, or overgrown. It’s one of the most visible symptoms of illness or stress in a cat, and catching it early can mean better treatment success for whatever’s ailing them. 

The only two times pet parents should keep a cat from grooming himself are during excessive stress or parasite-related grooming (such as bald, short patches in his fur where the skin shows through), or if he has something on his fur he can’t ingest safely. Topical flea medications are a very popular treatment among cat owners, who are equally familiar with the unusual application site. Typically, directions state to apply the medication between the shoulder blades – that’s because it’s the one place a cat can’t reach to groom himself. For households with more than one cat, be aware that cats need to be isolated, at least temporarily, when topical medication is used: otherwise, they may groom it off of each other and become ill.   

Where Do Cat Hairballs Come From?

All that grooming, combined with the papillae’s extraordinary ability to hang onto individual strands of fur, means a cat swallows a great deal of his own fur. Think about this fur in terms of a bathtub drain for a moment: sometimes, strands of hair simply slide down the drain and into the sewer, but sometimes a mat or clog of hair snarls in the drain instead. 

Hairballs in Cats: Causes & Treatments | Canna-PetBecause hair is pure protein and can’t be dissolved by a cat’s stomach acid, any fur that doesn’t naturally pass through his digestive system becomes a real problem. That hair causes indigestion, and takes up valuable real estate where food nutrients could fit, which could have meant a life-or-death food scenario to his wild feline ancestors. And so – up it comes, along with stomach acid, bile, partially-digested food, and other terrible things to step in at 3am in the morning. 

As the descendent of a much larger predator that needed to eliminate previously-eaten prey meals for parasites, spoil, and other health concerns, this vomiting doesn’t phase a cat very much. It’s business as usual for him, even if it’s a particularly bad and/or nauseating start to his human’s day. 

Do Hairballs Mean My Cat Is Sick?

Hairballs are natural and generally nothing to worry about