Vomiting furballs (formally known as trichobezoar) is fairly common in cats and can be caused by a variety of conditions. Although all cats can develop furballs, these are more common in long-haired, indoor, elderly and overweight cats. The cats that are particularly at risk are those which either over-groom, have a skin irritant (fleas, for example), or suffer from fur loss or bowel movement disorders.

Furballs develop when the cat ingests hair which forms a matted mass in the stomach or upper intestine causing a partial or complete obstruction. This stops food moving through the bowels and may produce a localized bowel condition which can lead to infection and other bowel problems. However, ejecting such excess hair as furballs is completely natural for a cat. Wild or feral cats naturally ingest hair with the mice which they eat, and burp out a furball about every 7-20 days. Though the 'ball' is not actually ball-shaped - 'cigar-shaped hair tubes' would be a better description. Since they generally have fur-free meals, most domestic cats acquire their furballs through grooming, and this can both cause problems and be a symptom that something is amiss.

It is natural for cats to groom - it's part of the feline obsession with keeping their coats clean. A cat's tongue has little hooks, not dissimilar to those in velcro. In grooming, this sandpapery tongue dislodges loose hairs in the cat's coat. These hairs get stuck between the little hooks. It is very difficult for the cat to spit the hair out, so it has to be swallowed. In many cases the hair passes through the stomach and the intestines without causing problems, but in some cats, the hair is not passed smoothly and it accumulates in the upper intestine or stomach. As more hair is ingested, the probability increases that the hair will not be cleared through the bowels. Cats with long hair are more likely to experience this than cats with short hair, because long hair in cats is the result of humans breeding for a recessive gene. The cat's digestion evolved to cope with short hairs, such as are found on mice or short-haired cat pelts.

Furballs are also the result of a cat taking in more hair than it can handle - usually as a result of excessive hair loss. Causes of this are:

Skin irritation - Fleas are the main culprit here but other psites such as ticks and lice can also cause skin irritation resulting in the cat over-grooming and digesting too much hair.

Stress - there is a condition known as psychogenic dermatitis. This is a stress condition in which cats will excessively lick their skin, pulling out hair and causing bald, inflamed areas. Cats with this problem often swallow large amounts of hair in relatively short periods of time and often develop furballs. Indoor cats which do not have much exercise or external stimuli are most prone to suffer from this. It is important to identify the cause of the stress and treat it, and not just to avoid having hairballs deposited on your sofa. As with humans, stressed cats can suffer a number of physical and mental ailments.

Obesity - overweight cats spend most of their lives sleeping and grooming. Because of their sedentary lifestyle, their bowel motility is poor ('lazy bowel') and passage of fecal material and fur slows, leading to blockages.

Clinical Symptoms

Cats with furballs in their systems are constipated and lethargic They appear dull and without much energy; Their feces are often dry and are passed less regularly. If it won't go out the bowels, most cats vomit up the furball. The process is somewhat spectacular, and alarming for owners who have not previously witnessed it. In the early stages the cat may start retching (dry vomiting) or vomiting bilious fluid. If the cat has eaten recently, undigested food may come up at the same time. When the condition become more advanced the vomiting becomes more forceful. The cat usually manages to vomit up the furball as a small moist, matted plug of hair.

In extreme cases when a cat is unable to pass the furball naturally, it has to be surgically removed. Fortunately this is very rare.


Furballs can be minimised by a high fibre diet which keeps material in the digestive tract moving briskly along. If a furball has got stuck, feeding the cat with a lubricating bowel preption will help. Flavoured petroleum-based laxative gels work well for both treatment and prevention, and are usually easy to administer. The required dosage will vary according to the individual cat. Some need treatment every few days while others need help only at times of heavy moulting. If your cat is still struggling with a furball despite this treatment, your vet may prescribe drugs which enhance gut motility. Persistent or very frequently recurring furballs need further investigation.

Following regurgitation of the furball, the cat usually bounces back to normal. However in some cases, the furball may have triggered a stomach irritation, and the cat may need need a few days of light feeding and symptomatic treatment. Also, very frequent vomiting may dehydrate the cat. If so fluid therapy using lactate powder will be important. In severe conditions contact the vet.

Prevention is always better than cure. To prevent or minimize furball episodes you need to treat the underlying cause:

  1. Fleas and ticks can be treated successfully using regular "Frontline" treatment. If you expect any other lisitic infection, consult your vet.
  2. For stress, introduce more exercise and activities for your cat, especially with indoor cats. The vet can prescribe some tranquilizers if the stress is too acute, but try to track down the cause rather than relying on soothing medication.
  3. Make sure that the cats are in good shape. If the cat is overweight , put her on a diet. Overweight cats can develop a number of problems apart from furballs, for example heart disease or diabetes, so (gradual) slimming is very important.
  4. Furballs affect long-haired cats more than short-haired cats. Regular brushing or even regular, firm stroking will help to keep the coat clean and minimise the number of loose hairs.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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