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Published: Jun 19, 2012

Most cat owners have encountered a hairball at one time or another. These sticky, hairy masses can be confused with feces at first glance, but are actually expelled by the cat from its stomach. While vomiting up an occasional hairball may be normal for cats, it is important that owners know the risks hairballs can pose, too.

Hairballs are the byproduct of grooming. Cat owners are probably aware of their cat's grooming habits. Cats are great at grooming themselves. This is partly thanks to their tongues, which are coated with papillae, backward-slanted barbs that pull loose hair from the coat and then allow the cat to swallow them, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. From there, the hair goes into the cat's stomach, then through its digestive tract and into its feces.

While most hair passes through the digestive tract normally, some remains in the stomach, and accumulates into a wet clump that may induce cat vomiting and results in a hairball.  In serious cases, a cat may develop a large hairball that may cause stomach or intestinal blockage. If your cat is acting lethargic, has not eaten in at least a day or has been retching frequently, you should bring it to the veterinarian, as these clinical signs of cat illness could signal an intestinal blockage caused by a hairball.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, regular grooming with a pet brush is a good way to reduce the amount of hair your cat swallows and thus its risk of a hairball complication.