Hairball vs. Vomit: What is the difference?

Tabby-tortoiseshell cat, Pansy, coughingA hairball is a blockage. It is not actually that thing your cat hacked up on the floor.  When cats licks themselves, hair gets ingested.  Sometimes this hair get stuck during the digestion process and causes a blockage at the pyloris, or the exit to the stomach. When this happens, you cat will vomit.  Interestingly enough, this causes your cat very little discomfort. Because the blockage does not cause any stomach upset, when the food hits the “road block” in the digestive tract, it is simply sent back the way it came.  Because there is no stomach upset, your cat remains mostly unphased and will often go back to eating.

A hairball usually occurs 10-15 minutes after your cat eats and will generally be vomit that is primarily composed of undigested food matter.  The process of vomiting due to a hairball actually helps the real hairball. The muscles involved in vomiting helps dislodge the blockage and gets it turning and moving in your cats stomach. That can help break up the blockage to make it easier for it to pass through your cats entire digestive track.  This is why the traditional hairball treatment is not much more than flavored petroleum jelly. The hairball treatment is ingested and the oil helps prevent the hairball from forming.  Hairball treatment doesn’t get rid of a hairball once it is formed, it just helps prevent them.

Warning Signs

Sometimes a hairball is just a hairball and sometimes it is something more.  Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Persistent and frequent vomiting (multiple times a week)
  • Vomiting after every meal
  • Vomit without food content
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Foreign object in throw-up

If your cat is throwing up a lot of volume or frequently you may want to bring them to the vet.  Sometimes vomit may just be a hairball, but it can also be a sign of something else.  Vomiting can be a symptom of everything from ingesting a foreign object, like string, to an infect, all the way up to cancer. If you are concerned, call your vet for an evaluation immediately.