Can Cats Choke To Death On Hairballs?

Can Cats Choke To Death On Hairballs

Cat hairballs are not only gross – they are also scary and can be fatal!

If you are a cat owner, you can probably relate to the feeling of disgust upon seeing a slimy, sausage-shaped wad of fur left by your cat for you to deal with. Revolting!

Those stinky lumps of hair your cat pukes up, known as hairballs, occur as a result of your feline’s meticulous grooming regimen. Cats have tiny papillae on their tongues that are excellent at catching all the loose hair, effectively acting as a hairbrush. Unfortunately, your cat might swallow some of this hair during the grooming process. 

Hairballs are usually nothing to worry about; however, they can be life-threatening if they cause a blockage or choke your poor cat.

What are hairballs?

A hairball, also known as trichobezoar, consists of dead hair clumped together in the stomach of a cat. Fastidious animals like cats often develop hairballs as a by-product of their grooming habits. As your feline’s abrasive tongue glides through her coat, she may unknowingly swallow the dead or loose hair, especially if she is long-haired or sheds a lot. 

Hair is made of keratin, an insoluble protein substance that cannot be digested with stomach acid. So, every time a cat grooms herself, some of the swallowed hair may accumulate, eventually forming a clump in her digestive tract. While some of the hair might be expelled along with her feces, some might remain in her stomach or small intestine. 

It can be normal for some felines to vomit a hairball about once a week, at the most. This means that once in a while you might end up cleaning an unpleasant, sausage-like wad of hair from your kitchen floor or your brand new carpet. But, if your cat fails to spit out the slimy clump, it might lead to more serious problems.

Why hairballs are dangerous

Hairballs only become dangerous when they are too large to pass through the intestinal tract or past the esophagus. In the latter case, they could choke your cat to death. While it is normal to see your feline spitting out a hairball once in a while, retching or gagging for any length of time may be a sign of a life-threatening blockage. 

A cat in distress and gagging is an emergency that cannot be delayed. Blockage in the digestive tract due to a compact mass of hair can be fatal and often requires surgical intervention. If your cat shows any of the symptoms of blockage below, see your vet right away:

  • lethargy
  • constipation
  • repeated retching or gagging without producing a hairball
  • diarrhea
  • bloated abdomen 
  • lack of appetite

How to know if your feline has a hairball

Hairballs are part of a cat’s life. If you have cats at home, you are probably already used to dealing with the slimy mess left by your furry companions on the kitchen or living room floor. Their digestive tracts are designed to handle hairballs under normal circumstances, so every time your cat ejects another stinky lump, you should feel relieved.

However, hairballs can sometimes become too large and difficult to pass out. Normally, cats should be able to spit out a hairball easily, with one or two tries. If in doubt, a visit to the vet should give you peace of mind and help you understand what you can do to help your cat expel the hairball more easily.

If your cat continues to struggle and retch for an extended time without producing a hairball, it is possible that the lump has lodged in her throat. 

Other symptoms of choking might include:

  • drooling
  • rubbing her face on the ground
  • labored breathing
  • coughing
  • gagging
  • fainting as a result of complete lack of airflow
  • pawing at the mouth
  • gums turning blue or purple due to lack of oxygen
  • foul breath and loss of appetite

Choking is an emergency. If you see your furry friend struggling to breathe, you must intervene right away to clear her airway. If you have know-how, you may perform life-saving techniques such as CPR while rushing your pet for emergency veterinary care. However, never try to give your cat medicines or laxatives without your vet’s approval.

How to prevent hairballs

For a cat, hairballs are a way of life and are normally expelled easily. But regular hairballs can also be frightening and possibly dangerous for your cat, so you may want to consider some proactive ways to ensure that she produces fewer hairballs.

1. Regular grooming

Maintaining your cat’s fur, especially during shedding season, will make a huge difference in preventing hairballs. Brush her regularly to remove loose hair, using a high-quality brush or comb. Look for any signs of tangles as well, and gently remove them with a dematting comb.

Regular grooming should not be a struggle since most cats love the soothing effect of being brushed. It also creates a strong emotional bond between you and your feline companion. But, if your cat is fussy about being brushed, consider taking her to a professional groomer. If she is long-haired, a visit to the groomer every four to six weeks should be sufficient to maintain her coat. Short-haired felines can be groomed once every eight to 12 weeks.

The reason that cat fur is beautiful is partly because of cats’ excellent grooming habits. However, this habit also means a lot of fur is swallowed. Helping your pet groom regularly would mean less loose hair to swallow whenever she grooms herself. A simple helping hand to keep a fastidious cat well-maintained will lessen the chances of developing more hairballs.

2. Keep the hair and skin healthy

Hairballs can be prevented if your cat’s coat and skin is well-maintained. When the skin and fur is healthy, your cat will be less likely to carry around loose and dead hair that can end up in her stomach. If you bathe her, use a good shampoo that heals dry and irritated skin and nourishes the fur to keep it thick and healthy. 

3. Use hairball remedies

The formation of hairballs is almost impossible to prevent, but you can do something to help your feline pass the lump more easily out of her system.

Regularly adding intestinal lubrication to your cat’s diet makes it easier for hair to pass through the digestive tract naturally, instead of coming back up to the esophagus. You can include oils such as melted butter or olive oil to your cat’s regular meals once a week. Canned tuna or sardines are also great for lubricating the digestive tract, so do not deprive your cat of these tasty treats once in a while.

Another excellent way to eliminate hairballs is to use commercial digestive lubricants made of oil or jelly. These laxatives or lubricants come in different flavors, such as malt or tuna that most felines love. However, a lubricant made of petroleum jelly is not so pleasant for most cats, so if you use one, make sure you follow the directions for the proper method of administering the medicine. If your cat has a lot of hairballs, you may need to increase the dosing frequency to expel the swallowed hair regularly.

4. Diet adjustments and plenty of exercise

Dietary adjustments and plenty of exercises are the best ways to combat hairballs. Help lessen the likelihood of hair build-up in your cat’s digestive tract by including natural fibers in her regular diet. Yucca extract, slippery elm bark, and psyllium are excellent when it comes to hairball management, and also help keep your feline’s bowel regular. 

If you prefer commercially available cat foods, choose those that are formulated to improve digestive health and minimize shedding. Most of the foods on the market are formulated for adult cats since it is less common for kittens to develop hairballs. 

Limit snacks with empty calories and too little fiber, as these foods do not really help improve your cat’s overall health. Prioritize a balanced diet that contains all the essential nutrients and minerals for a healthier coat and skin. If you are not sure which diet works for your cat, do not hesitate to ask for advice from your vet.

Lastly, keep your furry friend moving by having lots of playtimes. Good exercise prevents constipation and ensures the regular elimination of hairballs.

5. Regular visits to the vet

So you have provided the right nutrition, regular grooming, and hairball remedies, but nothing seems to work. In that case, your vet might have the answer. Sometimes, fur parents with cats prone to regular hairballs often overlook the possibility of internal health issues until it becomes obvious. 

A cat that sheds regularly for no clear reason has a higher risk of developing hairball problems. Some health issues, such as hyperthyroidism, can be a culprit and often go unnoticed. That is why regular check-ups are extremely important to catch the early symptoms of what could be a serious medical condition. A visit to the vet could greatly benefit you and your cat.


Hairballs are both disgusting and scary. Without proper management, the loose hair your cat swallows every time he licks himself can grow into a large clump of fur that could lead to intestinal blockage or choking. So, if you notice your cat showing any symptoms of hairballs or choking, you must act right away to save her life.

Prevention makes a huge difference in keeping your cat safe from a potentially life-threatening hairball problem. With the right diet, grooming habits, and hairball remedies, your feline may never have to suffer from hairballs again.

Image: / kimberrywood