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The occasional hairball is completely normal for cats and should be expected by all cat owners. Cats groom themselves with their rough tongues, picking up loose hair from their coats and ingesting it as they go. When this accumulates in their stomach it needs to be regurgitated.
The odd hairball here and there is nothing to be worried about. Some cats can even regurgitate a hairball every one or two weeks and still be perfectly healthy. However, a cat throwing up hairballs daily is something to worry about and needs to be looked at by a veterinarian.
In this article, I look at five possible medical conditions that can lead to your cat throwing up hairballs daily. I also talk more about what hairballs are, how they can be differentiated from other types of vomiting, and what you can do to prevent hairballs from forming in the first place.
What Are Hairballs in Cats?
Most cat owners have already come across hairballs at some point during their time of being a pet parent. However, I want to start by discussing what hairballs are and how they form.
As the name suggests, hairballs are formed from clumps of hair that your cat ingests as they self-groom. Cats love being clean and are ferocious groomers, ingesting plenty of hair every day. In fact, domestic cats spend between 30% and 50% of their days grooming their coats to keep them shiny, healthy, and clean.
The small amounts of hair ingested through grooming usually pass through a cat’s digestive system and are eliminated in their stools. Cats have specialized digestive systems just for this and can happily process a decent amount of fur without it causing any issue. However, when large quantities of hair accumulate in the stomach they clump together and form a hairball.
The scientific term for these clumps is a “trichobezoar”. Mixed in with these mats of hair are saliva and some digestive juices from the stomach. Undigestible food can sometimes get incorporated into the clumps as well. The hairballs will gradually get larger in size as more hair is ingested.
If the hairballs get so large that they are unable to pass through your cat’s intestines to be eliminated with their feces, the clumps are regurgitated instead. If your cat is throwing up food but acting normal, a hairball is a likely cause. They are usually tubular in shape and measure anywhere from 1 inch to several inches in length.
Are Hairballs Normal in Cats?
Hairballs are technically not “normal”. As mentioned, cats have specialized digestive systems that are capable of handling a normal amount of ingested hair. Therefore, cats should be able to successfully eliminate all hair that they swallow while grooming through their stools rather than throwing up a hairball.
With that being said, hairballs are nothing to worry about as long as they don’t occur too frequently. If it was not for your cat regurgitating these large indigestible lumps of hair, saliva, and bile, they would block your cat’s digestive system and make it impossible for them to go to the bathroom. It is therefore very beneficial for cats to throw up hairballs when compared to this alternative.
Some cats will get hairballs much more frequently than others. As their formation depends on the amount of hair ingested, it is much more common for long-haired breeds such as Maine Coons and Persians to throw up hairballs regularly when compared to short-haired or hairless breeds. As their hair is longer, large clumps can form much more quickly.
Likewise, hairballs are much more common in the summer seasons. Cats will shed more fur at this time of year to lose some of their insulation. This means they are better adapted to the warmer weather. However, as they lose their winter coat, more and more hair is ingested. This could cause big clumps to form that need to be regurgitated.
Regardless of the breed of your cat or the climate in which you live, too many hairballs are an issue and cannot be considered normal. As a general rule of thumb, cats should be throwing up no more than one hairball each week. Most cats will regurgitate hairballs far less frequently than this, but any cat throwing up more hairballs than this should be taken to a vet.
Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Hairballs Daily?
If your cat is throwing up hairballs daily, this is not normal. Indeed, this usually indicates that there is some underlying medication condition that is responsible. The condition generally causes either:
- Your cat to increase their self-grooming behavior and ingest excessive amounts of hair; or
- An issue along the digestive tract that impairs the ability of hairballs to move through it
As such, you should take your cat to the vet if they are throwing up hairballs more than once per week. They will run a physical examination to determine if this is due to a medical condition and then recommend an appropriate treatment option. Follow their advice and you should notice a decrease in the number of hairballs your cat regurgitates.
Although not an exhaustive list, below are five possible conditions your vet might find to be responsible.
1. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in cats is where the intestines become inflamed and swollen. This can make it much more difficult for the normal digestive processes to take place. The cells lining the GI tract become thicker than usual and the gut is unable to absorb nutrients as it usually would.
Inflammatory bowel disease is caused by an abnormal immune response. Several things can trigger this, including:
- Ingesting a non-food substance or foreign object
- Food allergies including allergies to meat proteins
- Hypersensitivity to bacteria found in the gut
- Internal or external injury to the digestive tract
Because IBD impacts the usual digestive processes, it means cats struggle to process ingested hair and pass it through their GI tract. This loss of ability means the only option is for cats to regurgitate their hairballs instead.
If your cat does suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, you will likely notice other symptoms including diarrhea or constipation, your cat throwing up after eating, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and general weakness, and abdominal pain. Your vet may ask you about these symptoms and complete urine and fecal analyses to help them diagnose cats with IBD.
2. Parasitic Skin Infestations
Fleas are the most common parasitic infection in cats, especially among those that live outdoors. These small black parasites live in your cat’s coat, bite on their skin, and feed on their blood. They jump around from place to place but typically congregate at the base of cats’ tails, along the back of their legs, and at the neck and shoulder blades.
The bites left behind by fleas are extremely itchy. As a result, cats will scratch excessively to relieve the itching and often bite and overgroom these areas. This often results in bald patches and hair loss. More hair is ingested as a result, leading to an increased frequency and formation of hairballs.
If your cat does have fleas, you’ll likely know as they’ll show many other symptoms. These are:
- Intense scratching, biting, and licking
- Being on edge and restless
- Red skin lesions and visible bites
- Black specks are seen in the cat’s coat
- Pale gums as the fleas feed on the blood
Other feline skin parasites that can cause extreme itchiness leading to overgrooming and the ingestion of more hair include ticks and ringworm.
3. Stress and Anxiety
Excessive grooming is one of the main signs of stress and anxiety in cats. This behavior feels comforting to them so they use it as one of their main coping mechanisms when dealing with stressful and uncomfortable situations. Interestingly, some Oriental breeds are more likely to develop stress-related grooming issues.
Whenever a cat overgrooms it will be ingesting more hair than usual. This can lead to bald patches on their coat and an increased formation and regurgitation of hairballs. Alongside these symptoms, other signs of stress include:
- Withdrawing from people and increased hiding behaviors
- Either an increase or decrease in appetite
- Restlessness and sleep disturbances
- Reluctance to use the litter tray or cat flap
- Becoming less tolerant of people and other animals
Cats can get stressed very easily. They are creatures of habit and don’t like it with either their routine or their environment changes. Something short-term such as the sound of nearby construction or a new guest being in your home could act as a stressor. On the other hand, long-term changes such as a new baby in the family, a new cat in your home, or moving house can also cause anxiety.
4. Skin Allergies
Skin allergies are another common cause of overgrooming in cats. This is where the immune system fires up in response to a substance the body perceives as a threat, even though they are not causing any major harm. These are known as allergens. The most common types of allergies in cats are:
- Food Allergies: In cats with food allergies, they are usually allergic to the protein source within the cat food rather than the grain. Common examples include beef and chicken.
- Environmental Allergies: Examples of environmental allergies include pollen, molds, or dust mites. These are all substances that can be found on the ground or in the air.
- Flea Allergies: Cats can also be allergic to fleas and flea bites, exacerbating the symptoms of a flea infestation. This can make their scratching and itching worse.
When cats that suffer from skin allergies have a flare-up their skin will become red and inflamed. This will cause intense itchiness which presents as excessive scratching and overgrooming of the inflamed area. This can lead to hair loss, as well as scabs, ulcerations, and sores.
Because cats with skin allergies are overgrooming to the point of hair loss, they ingest a lot more hair than a healthy cat would. This means hair quickly accumulates inside their stomach to form hairballs which they then throw up frequently or on a daily basis.
5. Internal Parasitic Infections
Finally, the reason your cat could be throwing up hairballs daily is due to an internal parasitic infection. Unlike fleas, ticks, and ringworm, internal parasites live inside your cat’s body. Some internal parasites such as roundworms and hookworms live in the digestive tract and cause severe digestive upset. Here’s a look at both of these parasites in more detail:
- Roundworms: Roundworms are the most common internal parasite, especially in kittens. They live freely in their intestines and are often passed from the mother cat to her kittens through their milk. Adult cats can also get infected by consuming roundworm larvae in the feces of infected cats or tissues of hosts.
- Hookworms: Hookworms get their names from their hook-like shape. Rather than being free moving, these parasites use their hooked shape to anchor themselves to the lining of the intestine. They then feed on the blood and tissue fluid. They are much less common than roundworms and are mainly an issue in overcrowded catteries or poorly sanitized conditions.
As both of these worms cause digestive issues, it impairs the ability of the digestive system to handle normal amounts of ingested hair. This causes the hair to accumulate and more hairballs to form than usually would.
Hairballs vs. Vomiting in Cats
It is important that we can all tell the difference between hairballs and vomiting. If your cat is doing either daily then it is never a good sign and you should take your cat to the vet. However, the underlying conditions are different for each and so it is important to distinguish between them.
Hairballs will be long and tubular masses that are made of hair that is packed densely together. It assumes this tube-like shape as the ball of hair is forced up your cat’s esophagus. There will be digestive juices lining the hairball, but it is generally more compact and structured.
On the other hand, the vomit will have a more watery and soft consistency and will be made predominantly of food matter and digestive juices. Some hair may also come up with the vomit, but this does not mean it is a hairball.
How Can I Prevent Hairballs?
Thankfully, there are a few tricks that you can try to help prevent or minimize hairballs from forming in the first place. This is not in place of any medication prescribed by your vet to treat an underlying condition. However, it is useful for cats that are frequently passing hairballs to improve their overall wellbeing and means less cleaning up for you!
Here is a look at the techniques I use with my Maine Coon cat that you should try:
- Brushing: The best thing you can do for your cat to prevent hairballs is to brush its gorgeous fur coat regularly. The majority of the loose fur will get trapped in the bristles of the brush which you can take off and put into the trash. This means there is less loose hair for your cat to swallow and ingest, so fewer hairballs will form. Ensure that you get a brush that is appropriate for your cat’s coat type.
- Water: Cats rarely drink enough water, but increasing your cat’s water intake can reduce the frequency of hairballs. Proper hydration ensures the skin contains enough moisture to keep it in good condition. This means hair will be lost less frequently. Moreover, water can help to lubricate the hair your cat does swallow so it can pass through their bodies and be digested rather the regurgitated.
- Diet: The diet you feed your cat also impacts the health of their skin and coat. A good diet packed with all the nutrients your cat needs including essential fats and proteins is a must for healthy skin and fur, thus reducing the amount of shedding. Additionally, a diet containing higher amounts of fiber promotes the healthy digestion of hair rather than the formation of hairballs.
- Exercise: Many cats will groom excessively when they are bored and have nothing better to be doing with their time. In turn, this leads to an increased frequency of hairballs. Encouraging exercise and playing with your cat regularly can keep your cat entertained so they don’t excessively groom. I suggest purchasing a range of different toys including flopping fish, feather wands, laser pens, and more.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If you see your cat throwing up hairballs daily, you need to take them to the vet. Although occasional hairballs are nothing to worry about, a cat that is regurgitating hairballs this regularly could be suffering from a medical condition.
These medical conditions either impair digestive function such as IBS or internal parasites, or cause overgrooming, for example, external parasites, food allergies, and stress. Follow your vet’s recommendation and treatment. You can also use my tips listed above to further help reduce the frequency of hairballs, both for the benefit of you and your cat!