Plus, a veterinary expert explains why they happen and what you can do to treat them.

By Roxanna Coldiron
May 14, 2020
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Anyone who lives with cats knows that sound: You're startled by a loud retching at the foot of your bed. Look down and there's no mistaking it—your sweet little feline just coughed up a hairball. Most people just assume that cats will cough up hairballs on a regular basis and think nothing of it. But are they ever a cause for concern?

Cat cleaning itself
Credit: Konstantin Aksenov / Getty Images

Hairballs, of course, are common to cats. They are "caused by the accumulation of fur in your cat's stomach due to regular grooming," explains Hyunmin Kim, DVM, veterinary staff manager of community medicine at the ASPCA. "Most of the time, fur will pass through your cat's digestive tract with no problem." Sometimes, those balls of fur will build up in your cat's stomach, and Kitty will need to vomit it up to get it out of her system.

But hairballs can become a problem if they get lodged in the gastrointestinal tract and cause an obstruction, which results in a life-threatening medical emergency. "You should take your cat to your veterinarian if you notice that your cat is constantly hacking or retching as if they're trying to vomit a hairball, or experiences lethargy, lack of appetite, or constipation," Dr. Kim says. You want to get medical care for your cat as soon as possible.

Grooming your cat daily can help to prevent this from happening. Brush your cat at least once a day, especially if she has a long hair type, to eliminate any loose fur. It also gives you a great opportunity to bond with your cat, Dr. Kim says. Specialized foods, such as Hill's Science Diet Hairball Canned Food ($37.68, chewy.com) or Blue Buffalo Indoor Hairball Control Cat Food ($22, chewy.com), could help reduce hairballs. Your veterinarian can provide you with advice on the best way to treat and prevent your cat's hairballs.

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