One comedian answered this question with the humorous answer that his cat coughed up hairballs because it was choking. The answer is so obvious that it’s almost funny. That answer is also very true. Cats have fur that is loose enough to come out when the animal cleans and “grooms.” Cat tongues are quite rough, similar to fine sandpaper. This helps pull the hair out.
Of course, some of this hair gets in the mouth and is passed through the animal as the cat eats and eliminates waste. Most animals that are meat eaters have stomachs that are meant to handle rough items, including some hair. Many cats eat their prey whole, hair and all. But there may come a time when too much hair is in the system.
In this situation, the hair collects in such a mass that it causes discomfort. The hair mass may even cause stomach irritation. Naturally, the cat’s body wants to get rid of this uncomfortable mass, so it is coughed up by a strong body reaction. Most of the time there is no reason for the cat owner to be concerned about this. However, some cats with longer hair or very coarse hair may be coughing up these “intruders” too often.
The presence of too many hairballs in the stomach can lead to more serious problems if the situation is not addressed. Most veterinarians can be of assistance in these cases. A vet will be able to tell if the condition is caused by a hair mass or is really an indication of some other health problem. But even the occasional and natural elimination of hairballs can cause some minor damage to the stomach and throat, though this is rare.
Pet owners who see the cat coughing and appearing to choke without bringing up a mass of hair should contact their veterinarian. This action may be a sign of some more serious problem such as asthma or a serious stomach ailment. Some look at the feline hairball situation as being a matter of imbalance in the cat’s system. While this doesn’t change the condition, it can be a good way to look at it. Hairball coughs should be considered in a total view of the animal – its activity, diet etc.
Knowing why cats cough up hairballs should lead to knowledge about how to prevent excessive coughing that is caused by hair in the system. Long-haired cats may need to be combed and groomed by the owner to get rid of excess hair in the coat. It may be wise to check with a veterinarian or professional pet groomer to get the correct comb or brush.
Some experts suggest watching the animal closely to see if it eats grass or the leaves of a plant. This may be a sign that it is trying to take care of the stomach problem on its own. This isn’t a sure sign, but it might be something to watch for. Keep in mind that a cat must get rid of the extra hair in its stomach somehow. Coughing up a hairball might be the only healthy way to do it.