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What Do Hairballs Look Like?

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What Do Hairballs Look Like?
What Do Hairballs Look Like? | Innovet Pet

We've all heard of hairballs, and if we've had a cat for very long, we've seen them vomit in some form or another. How do you know when they're vomiting up a hairball and what to do about it? Should you be concerned, and when? Answering the question, "what do cat hairballs look like?" is the first step to knowing what to do.

What is a cat hairball?

Before getting into what a hairball looks like, let's discuss what they are. Cats groom, a lot. They don't do it with brushes, but with their tongues, tongues with little bristle-like pieces that comb through their fur like a brush. Some of their hairs get into their mouths this way and end up being swallowed.

Their bodies are supposed to pass these hairs right on through their digestive tracts, but when that doesn't happen, they collect and build a hairball.

What does a hairball look like?

So, how does one recognize a hairball when they see it? What is the difference between a hairball and any other vomit? Well, there isn't an easy answer because hairballs can vary a lot. Hairballs are distinguishable from other vomit. They just don't always look the same.


Hairballs, rather than really being round, are usually long and cylindrical because they conformed to the shape of the inside of the cat.


They will most commonly be about the size of a human finger. A small hairball may be more pinky-sized while a larger one may be as big as a middle finger.


Hairballs usually come out some shade of their fur with a brown, green, or orange tint because they are made up of your cat's hair, discolored by stomach acid, and mixed with mucus or dyed with cat food.


Your typical hairball will be both slimy and coarse, made up of hair and slick, mucousy stuff. They'll be kind of limp but will mostly want to retain their cylindrical shape, as opposed to vomit which will lean more toward shapelessness or liquidity or taking the shape of their food, if it has been barely processed.

Just hair?

Nope. To make matters much more enjoyable, (that's sarcasm) the hairball may be all mixed up with mucus, stomach acid, or food.

Because there may be more thrown up than just a hairball, don't be surprised if you get part hairball and part nasty mass of vomit or hairball on a pile of vomit.

Cat hairball looks like poop

What Do Hairballs Look Like? | Innovet Pet

Don't worry that it looks like this, just focus on preventing your cat from getting more hairballs. If you've seen something on your floor or furniture that you can't determine if it's a hairball or poop, comfort yourself with the knowledge that 90 people search for this every month.

It is not uncommon for a hairball to be reminiscent of poop because it can be brown and cylindrical and have more substance than other types of vomit.

Do all cats have hairballs?

It is not a guarantee that your cat will have a hairball. They're not exactly supposed to have them as their bodies are designed to dispose of the hair they ingest. Sometimes things get out of whack and cats will have hairballs, but it is a sign of something out of the ideal kitty stomach environment.

That being said, it is likely that your cat will get at least one hairball at some point in their life. Even having up to two a year is not cause for concern over your cat's health.

Long-haired cats are more likely to develop hairballs than their short-haired counterparts because they've got all that long hair to potentially get caught up in their digestive tract. Maine Coons and Persians suffer hairballs the most.

Why do cats get hairballs?

Cats need a certain amount of fiber, which they get from eating grass outside or fiber in their cat food. Like our digestive systems, they need a certain balance in there for things to work as they should.

This balance may be thrown off because they:

  • aren't eating enough fiber
  • are consuming an excessive amount of hair
  • have digestive issues because of an illness

Why does a cat vomit up a hairball?

Hairballs can't stay inside the cat as they make it difficult for the cat to digest their food properly. A hairball should pass in the other direction and come out in their poop, but if that doesn't happen, indigestion builds up in the cat's stomach as a consequence of the hairball and helps it come out. That volatile environment helps the cat puke up a hairball that otherwise would get stuck and remain in there indefinitely and cause serious health problems.

Can a cat die from a hairball?

That's a grim headline, but 320 people ask every month, so it needs to be answered. Most of the time, hairballs are just unpleasant for you and the cat. The dangers of hairballs range from the hairball being a symptom of another health problem, impairing the cat's digestive health, or causing a medical emergency that could cause death.

So, most hairballs fit into the annoying thing you may have to experience when living with a cat category, but they do pose risks, particularly as the number of hairballs increases.

When to be concerned about a cat hairball

Most of the time, cats vomit up a hairball and it's just unpleasant for everyone involved, but there are several causes for concern to be watchful for.

Poor digestion and nutrition

Hairballs limit the stomach's ability to perform as it should. The longer the hairball stays in there, the more impact it can have. Your cat may lose their appetite because of stomach distress or feel perpetually full.


Hairballs can get into the cat's intestines and can block the passage of its contents, or they may stay in the stomach and become too big to pass through the esophagus or into the intestines. This can cause a serious situation where a cat's digestive system can't function as it should, limiting their appetite and reducing the flow of waste. They may also be in discomfort or pain.


A cat having a hairball more than twice a year should be evaluated by a vet to detect potential disease or fix a lifestyle habit that is disrupting the cat's ability to pass a hairball.

Choking on it

If the cat tries to throw up the hairball and can't, the hairball becomes a medical emergency. They will cough and gag like they are going to throw up for a long time without result or they may stop doing this and start drooling, keeping their mouth open, and have difficulty breathing. Call a vet 24/7 should this occur.

Signs of hairballs in cats

As funny as this sounds, hearing the characteristic sound of cat vomit and finding a hairball are the upsides of hairball symptoms. This means it's gone! There are many more symptoms that indicate a hairball is in your kitty and hasn't been vomited up yet or that one has become impacted.

Cat hairball symptoms may include:

What Do Hairballs Look Like? | Innovet Pet
  • a vomited-up hairball
  • an aborted attempt to throw up
  • reduced appetite
  • no appetite
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • bathroom accidents
  • lethargy
  • skittishness
  • hiding
  • swollen abdomen
  • tenderness in the abdomen

All of these symptoms but the first one are serious and require a vet visit if they don't go away in 24 hours.

Once your cat has vomited up a hairball, it may be a good idea to think of preventing another one.

Cat hairball prevention

Grooming is the primary area of interest when it comes to hairball prevention.

Brush your cat every day. Particularly long-haired cats. This will remove loose hairs before the cat has a chance to ingest them. It is even more important to do this during the spring when the cat is shedding their winter coat.

If your cat is excessively grooming, stop them when you see them doing it and discover the cause as soon as possible. They probably have a health problem like a skin condition, flea allergy, pain, or anxiety that needs to be addressed on its own, and the excessive grooming will lead to hairball production.

Let your cat eat some grass and/or give them a cat food made for preventing hairballs.

How to help your cat pass a hairball

What Do Hairballs Look Like? | Innovet Pet

There are many popular remedies involving different kinds of oil or petroleum for trying to lubricate the hairball, and they can work, but you should try them with a vet's guidance as they may have more negative consequences than benefits. Most vets will suggest you try something else less risky.

Diet and external changes can encourage the cat's body to get rid of the hairball the way it is supposed to. Switch to higher-fiber cat food. Cellulose, sugarcane fiber, and beet pulp are the best kinds of fiber to remove hairballs, with beet pulp being the best of all because it adds more benefits to the digestive system as a whole. Reduce stress where possible. Try to prevent them from adding more hair to it by brushing them and discouraging excessive grooming. Try larger, harder kibble. Make sure they are getting plenty of water. Feed them less food more often to encourage better digestion.

Cat-safe laxatives may be tried in an effort to remove hairballs that are stubborn enough or causing enough problems to not respond to external factors but are not too large to pass.

Impacted hairballs may need to be surgically removed. If it's too big, it can't get out on its own.

Diagnosing a cat hairball

Diagnosis of cat hairball problems depends on the situation. The problem to be solved is vastly different if the cat is choking on a hairball, if they simply have frequent hairballs, or if they have an impacted hairball.

The vet will listen to your account of the cat's symptoms, so be as thorough as possible involving times, diet, lifestyle, symptoms, and maybe even the appearance of the hairballs.

They will observe visible signs in the cat and then perform tests or procedures as needed.

A choking cat will be treated as if they are choking on anything, with visual inspection and/or efforts to remove the hairball.

Diagnosis of frequent hairballs involves listening to your information to determine what may be causing the hairballs and potentially running tests to rule out diseases.

X-rays are needed to definitively diagnose and plan treatment for impacted hairballs.

How CBD Oil May Help with Cat Hairballs

Looking for a natural hairball remedy for cats? While it may not be the best idea for getting rid of the hairball itself, CBD oil may help prevent the causes of hairballs.

CBD oil eases anxiety in cats that may make them groom excessively or have digestive issues. This takes care of the stress angle.

It may also alleviate skin conditions and allergies that may make cats excessively groom, striking at another cause of hairballs.

CBD oil promotes good digestion, so it could help foster the healthy environment in your cat's stomach that can help it pass a hairball as it should. If you're struggling to find a safe and effective way to manage your cat's ongoing hairball problem, speak to your vet about whether CBD oil may be the best answer. It is a gentle way to address a wide range of hard-to-manage issues like anxiety, skin conditions, and digestive problems. Where a medication may be too harsh or simply not work, CBD oil may save the day.

CBD, otherwise known as cannabidiol, can be extracted from marijuana or hemp, but many of them come from hemp because it is naturally high in cannabidiol and contains virtually no THC. This way one can get the health benefits without the psychoactive and unstable elements that THC causes.

You know how medical marijuana becomes more popular all the time? Well, the effect it's touted for comes largely from cannabidiol and the claims aren't wishful thinking. That's why CBD oil is also becoming a more recognized option for managing otherwise seemingly unmanageable problems.

Scientists have discovered that humans, cats, and many other animals have an endocannabinoid system that creates and utilizes its own cannabinoids to make organs all over the body work as they should. Like serotonin and other chemicals in the body we know about, we need a certain amount to maintain the body's homeostasis.

Cannabidiol is considered safe and side effect free. There are no known instances of an overdose, but when given in large enough quantities, it may cause loss of appetite, diarrhea, or sedation. You should tell your vet about the use of CBD oil before they perform any procedures or prescribe any medication as it impacts how the liver absorbs substances and doses will not work as expected without tweaking. There is also conflicting information about whether CBD oil has a positive, restorative effect or a negative effect similar to acetaminophen or alcohol in humans, on the liver.

How to use CBD Oil?

There are many options available to meet the needs and tastes of the cat.

You can choose from:

  • oil tinctures
  • extract concentrates
  • capsules
  • treats
  • topicals

Treats are one of the most popular methods, allowing you to easily help manage chronic issues like anxiety, pain, or digestive problems. It's a no brainer that a cat is going to love a treat. The only downside is that you can't vary the dosage. They are one dose and all you can do is give another one for a larger dose, or break it apart for a smaller dose, if it is capable of being broken.

Capsules are also easy, taste free, no fuss ways to give cats CBD oil if they don't mind taking pills, but they too don't allow you room to tweak a dose. Extract concentrates are versatile options as you measure the product out in little beads to achieve whatever dose you need. It contains only cannabidiol, so it is the purest and most cost-effective choice. It also tastes exactly like hemp, so if your cat isn't into that, you'll have to mask it in a strong-tasting food.

Oil tinctures contain cannabidiol, a carrier oil, and often a flavoring to combine the flexibility of the concentrates with the enjoyability of treats.

Topicals for pets take the form of lotions or balms and are great choices to treat localized problems externally, like joint pain or skin problems. It is safe for the cat to eat, so it won't matter if they get in it.

Innovations from Innovet

We create scientifically-backed, natural, and eco-friendly products for pets. If you're asking, " what does a cat hairball look like?" you've probably got a puking cat on your hands. Once you've discovered if your cat's immediate health is in control, you might choose our CBD oil tinctures to aid with anxiety and digestive issues or our CBD balm to address skin problems that may be causing your cat to get hairballs. While you're in our store, you might also want to pick up some dental care or anti-pest products. If your cat is suffering from an ailment that no traditional treatment or natural alternative has fixed, contact us to see if we can't discover a solution. We love to innovate for pets.


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