Are Hairballs Normal?

Feline Vomiting and Diarrhea – IBD

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Comments from specialists:

  • We do not believe it is ‘normal’ for cats to vomit hairballs, but feel it is symptomatic of gastrointestinal disease, especially IBD and its various presentations.
  • Cats are built to eat a lot of hair from self-grooming, grooming other cat friends and eating small, furry rodents.
  • I might accept vomiting one or two hair balls a year as possibly normal. However, it is more likely the cat is vomiting for some other reason and the owners only see the hair as the problem.
  • I don’t rely on laxative-type products in vomiting cats since vomiting is not a “grease” deficiency, just as grease is not a treatment for vomiting people.  I don’t believe that nature created a vomiting species.  Vomiting hair is frequently the result of a motility disorder due to inflammation of the intestines = IBD.

Vomiting and Diarrhea can be acute or chronic. Acute cases have a greater probability of being less serious but some acute causes such as foreign body obstruction and exposure to a toxin can require immediate attention for a good outcome. Chronic disease can be slowly progressing or intermittent or may take weeks or even years before owners are certain that there is a problem.

Owners and veterinarians always hope that vomiting or diarrhea “is nothing”. For example, in cats, vomiting is sometimes dismissed with the comment, “I thought it was just hairballs.” The following list shows how varied and complex the causes can be. Some possible broad categories of causes of vomiting and diarrhea include: viral, bacterial, fungal, protozoal, parasites, obstruction, inflammatory, immune mediated, metabolic, hormonal, systemic disease, cancer, anatomic abnormalities, drug-induced, toxins and an array of adverse reactions to food.

Diagnosing a cause of vomiting or diarrhea requires a series of questions (a good history) and a good physical with abdominal palpation. Treatment can range from supervised observation, to a trial of symptomatic medication, to a diet trial, to tests, which might include, fecal parasites, blood, X-ray, barium, endoscopy with stomach/intestine biopsy and/or ultrasound. Tests are only recommended when warranted because simple approaches have failed.

The purpose of this discussion is to broaden our thoughts beyond “hairball” whenever our cat vomits, even if the vomit is hair.  An examination and a good history with your veterinarian will allow a better understanding of possible causes and a diagnostic and/or treatment plan can be developed.