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Hairballs In Cats: Is It Normal?

03.10.2021 by Dr. Crystal Hoh

Many people seem to think it is normal for cats to vomit to varying degrees.  Some pet families define “normal” frequency of vomiting as monthly, weekly, or even daily!  It may surprise many people to learn that vomiting is not actually a normal cat behavior.  Long-haired cats can sometimes vomit hairballs on a rare basis but in many cases, hairballs are a sign that something is not quite right with your kitty. 

Normally when cats groom, the small amount of hair ingested daily passes naturally and does not get trapped to later be spit up.  When large hairballs form in the stomach, these are usually caused by hair building up faster and in much larger than normal volumes or by a stomach unable to empty at a normal rate.  When hair builds up faster than normal in larger volumes, this can be a red flag for a cat with allergies that is itchy and is over-grooming.  In other cases, hairballs are a red flag for an upset stomach that is unable to empty as quickly as normal.

It is also important to pay attention to whether a cat actually spits up a hairball.  As a specialist board certified in internal medicine, it is common for me to discuss a cat with a history of hairballs.  In some cases, the sound of hairballs is made but nothing comes up.  As strange as it may seem, coughing or airway diseases like asthma in cats can look a lot like hairball episodes.  In other cases, cats are only spitting up small amounts of hair and there is true long-term vomiting with nausea. 

Anyone concerned about their cat spitting up more than 2-3 times a year should have this brought up to a veterinarian so that further clarification can be made.  Vomiting kitties are actually a very common appointment category I see as a specialist.  During these appointments a thorough history with examination of the kitty can provide valuable clues to help determine any testing or treatments that may be needed to help get an accurate diagnosis.  Trying to get a diagnosis is important because there are a lot of diseases that may cause stomach upset or the behaviors described above in cats.  This means there are also many different treatment options. 

The most important thing to realize is that some cases of vomiting may be signs of bigger issues and some of these can be serious if not treated early or appropriately.   It is also much easier on carpet cleaning bills when the vomiting becomes controlled. 

I recommend you reach out to your primary veterinarian if you have a kitty with spitting up issues as a starting point.  Depending on the issues, your veterinarian may recommend referral to an internal medicine specialist for the best treatment plan.

Dr. Crystal Hoh, DVM, MS, DACVIM

(Small Animal Internal Medicine)

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