Most cat owners have seen their pet regurgitate a hairball at one time or another. Hairballs can result from your cat’s normal habit of grooming itself. As your cat grooms itself with its tongue, it swallows a lot of loose hair. Unfortunately, hair is indigestible. Most of the swallowed hair passes uneventfully through your cat’s digestive tract and gets excreted intact in the feces, but some of it may remain in the stomach and gradually accumulates into a hairball.

It’s not uncommon for a cat to regurgitate a hairball once every week or two. For the most part, hairballs do not pose a health risk for your cat. However, if the wad of matted hair in the stomach grows too large to be regurgitated back up the esophagus or pass into the intestinal tract, your cat may need to be seen by a veterinarian.

A cat that is lethargic, refuses to eat for more than a day or two or has had repeated episodes of unproductive retching or true vomiting should be examined by a veterinarian without delay. It’s possible that the frequent hacking has nothing at all to do with hairballs. It may instead be a sign of another gastrointestinal problem or of a respiratory ailment, such as asthma, in which case emergency treatment may be necessary. Medical management is sometimes necessary to help move the hairball through the digestive tract. In rare cases, a hairball may be so large that surgery may be required to remove the potential blockage. Never give your cat laxatives or rely on diet alone if you believe your cat has a hairball that it cannot bring up. If your cat has a blockage caused by a hairball, this can become a life-threatening situation and can only be assessed and treated by your veterinarian.

Some cats groom themselves more than others, which makes them more prone to developing hairballs. Also, development of hairballs is more frequent at times of the year when cats are normally shedding their coats. To minimize the development of hairballs and their complications, get into the habit of brushing and combing your cat’s hair coat daily. If your cat will not allow you to brush it, take it to a reputable groomer for a haircut once or twice a year. This is especially helpful in long-haired breeds. Feeding your cat a hairball remedy once or twice a week may also help. This is usually in the form of a petroleum-based paste, which cats may find tasty.