Hairballs Are the Worst: What are Hairballs and How to Prevent Them

Hairballs Are the Worst: What are Hairballs and How to Prevent Them

Having a cat is one of the best things in the world; dealing with your cat’s hairballs is one of the worst. Cats are creatures full of contradictions like that, both soft and sharp, aloof one moment and attention-hungry the next. And those of us with cats in our families are used to dealing with adorable on one hand and less-than-glamorous on the other. Today’s case in point: hairballs.


A hairball, more formally known as a trichobezoar, is a wad of cat hair coated in bile and digestive fluids, ejected undigested from the stomach of a cat. Despite their common name, these hairballs are not round. Because they pass through the cat’s esophagus as they’re vomited up, hairballs emerge in an elongated oval shape – like a particularly revolting cigar. The color of the hairball is dependent on the color of your cats’ fur – and not always just the color of the cat who horked up the hairball. (Tiger Jack’s hairballs come out half-orange and half-grey all the time, since he grooms his sister Dany in addition to himself.) The average length of a hairball is about an inch, though I’ve personally seen them much longer – up to 4 inches! My husband measured once; he was impressed. Tiger Jack likes to excel at everything he does, which includes producing extra-long hairballs.

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As you know, our kitty friends keep themselves nice and clean through a judicious regimen of self-cleaning. In other words, they lick their fur on the daily. This means that they also wind up swallowing their own hair every day, thanks to the anatomy of their tongues.

cat grooming hairballsImage: Sergey Vladimirov via Flickr

Any cat-owner knows their cat’s tongue feels like sandpaper, but did you know their tongue’s covered in tiny hook-like projections called papillae? These backward-slanting bristles catch dead and loose hair as your cat grooms – but cats don’t pause and spit out a mouthful of fur with every swipe of their tongue. Instead, that dead hair caught in their papillae is swallowed – and some of it lurks, undigested, in your cat’s stomach, building into a hairball over time.


Clearly, that swallowed hair can’t hang out in your cat’s stomach forever. Most of the hair winds up getting digested, and comes out the other end – in a little place we like to call the litter box! But some hair doesn’t go that way, a hairball is produced, and then your cat goes through an vomiting process that looks as terrifying as it is uncomfortable.

Your cat hunkers down. She extends her neck, and a horrifying retching sound echoes rhythmically from her throat. Maybe she coughs and gags a few times before finally expelling that disgusting cigar of undigested hair. Then, her work done, she licks her jaws and casually saunters away.

This probably happened right on your carpet, too. Even though there’s tile not six inches away. I’m not naming any Tiger Jack names, but that certainly ends up being the case around my house 85% of the time. (The remaining 15% is only because we have A LOT of tile.) Tiger Jack is very conscientious, though! If we’re not around to clean it up right away, he will helpfully bury his mess like a good kitty. Of course, he has to be creative with his burying: we have discovered hairballs covered with socks, receipts, toys, mail and, on one very memorable occasion, the entire duvet from off the bed.


cat with brush

You can’t entirely eliminate hairballs, but there are some ways to help cut down on them and make things easier on your cat.

Specially-formulated food

Many cat food brands sell a specific “hairball formula” or “hairball control” kind of kibble. According to various manufacturers’ labels, this type of dry cat food is high in fiber to encourage your cat’s body to process hair naturally through his digestive tract. It’s also supposed to improve your cat’s coat and so minimize hair loss.

Hairball remedies

There are a number of hairball treatments you can purchase OTC, and they come in gel, paste, and soft chew forms. These treatments are mostly laxative in nature, with natural oils, vitamins, and fiber – again, to improve their coats, and promote the hair’s movement through your kitty’s intestinal tract.

Brush it out

Long-haired cats are particularly susceptible to hairballs (for obvious reasons). One of the best ways you can help your cat is by brushing him regularly to minimize how much dead and loose hair he’s swallowing when he grooms himself. Tiger Jack hates being brushed, but it’s like making kids eat vegetables: they may not enjoy it, but it’s good for them and gonna get done.


Hairballs may be the worst, but they’re the price for what is best in life: petting your kitty, seeing them driven before you by the red dot, and hearing the purring of your cats. Let these techniques help you minimize both you and your cat’s discomfort in dealing with that price.











  1. Love your article. I have a Tiger Jack at home who is Tiger’s twin. Butter hacked all time until I found the goop at the Vets office. Great stuff, but getting him to take it is another story. When he was young, I just put the global on a paw, but he shook that off allover my windows and painted green walls. Now, after TEN YEARS I figured that if you fill a large syringe with the correct dose and property him up to take his meds. WOW.

  2. marilyn pynn

    Hi thanks for your advise my cat will be 14 yrs in july in the summer when i take him outdoors he eat grass this make him throw up but he as to come in the house to do that this winter he as been in the house no grass so bhe dont throw up he was so sick lost weight i though he was goning to die he only eats cat food no table scraps i knew there was something matter with is throat didnt know what i thought will i might as well give him something for it so i gave him quarter of t and as soon as it was down he threw up unreal it was about 2 in long big around couldnt belive it it was stuck in is throat now he eats plays just like he always was but today he threw up another fur ball but only small i have to give him something for fur balls till grass comes where i live that could be another 2 mths thanks very much

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