The Science Behind Hairballs

The Science Behind Hairballs

If you’ve had a cat for longer than a week, you’re probably familiar with hairballs. The wretching. The heaving. The gross outcome. Nothing about a hairball is pretty.

“A hairball is just a collection of hair that becomes woven together and forms a mass or ball,” says Dr. Karyn Collier, DVM, Chief Medical Officer at Saint Francis Veterinary Center. “Hairballs are often vomited by cats, and may be long and tubular in appearance.”

In fact, cats aren’t the only animals who develop hairballs. Rabbits can sometimes develop hairballs so large they may require surgical removal.

So why do they happen? Cats are fastidious groomers, says Dr. Collier, and the surface of their tongues are rough. “These barb-like protrusions on the tongue catch loose hair, and cats ingest the hair as they are grooming,” she explained.

But while veterinarians used to think of hairballs as normal for cats, most now believe that they can be symptomatic of a gastrointestinal motility or inflammatory intestinal issue in cats. “With slower intestinal motility, or an inflamed intestinal tract, the hair that is ingested sits in the stomach, coalescing into a ball that the cat eventually vomits up,” said the vet.

If your cat is regularly vomiting hairballs, have her examined by her veterinarian to evaluate her general health. Overall, routine brushing, and in some cases even having their fur shaved, can minimize shedding, and therefore furballs. “Cats may also benefit from eating more canned food,” says Dr. Collier. “The increased moisture, higher protein and lower carbohydrates may aid in digestibility and motility through the intestinal tract.”

Image: Johanna Goodyear / via Shutterstock