The fact that cats have hairballs is common knowledge. However, “what are they” and “how do they happen” are not as widely discussed, since the subject can be rather gag-worthy. Though hairballs may hardly be a pleasant topic to consider at the dinner table, for the sake of understanding our kitties better, let’s briefly break down what is happening to your feline when a hairball makes an appearance.

What is a hairball?

The scientific word for hairball is trichobezoars. This can be broken down to tricho meaning “pertaining to hair” and bezoar, meaning “a mass or glob collecting in the gastrointestinal system.” A hairball is the solid substance that is vomited by a cat after a build-up has happened in his body, and is considered a natural by-product of meticulous feline hygiene/grooming regimen.

What causes a hairball?

cartoon image of a cat that has coughed up a hairballCats spend a large portion of the day grooming themselves. They find a quiet place to stretch out, and give special attention to licking every inch of their bodies. By so doing, they remove dirt particles, dust, lint, and excess hair from their coats to keep them sleek and shiny. During the grooming process, the brush-like fissures in a cat’s tongue scoop away the hair and dusty bits, which the cat sometimes accidentally swallows. Most of the hair will simply pass through the cat’s stool, but in many cases, the grime and fuzz gets stuck in either the cat’s small intestine or his stomach. This internal wad of fur causes digestive discomfort for the cat, which results in him coughing until the hairball has been regurgitated.

Symptoms of hairballs

Your cat may seem out of sorts for a while, showing evidence of a loss of appetite or constipation. He will also be retching and hacking, or making gagging noises throughout the day. This will eventually result in him vomiting, either producing the hairball, or simply just the contents of his stomach, since the hairball is causing him discomfort. If your ailing feline is gagging for more than a day or two, or is having severe diarrhea, then be sure to bring him to a vet as soon as possible.