What We Thought Was a Hairball…Wasn’t.

by Melissa R. on May 12, 2010

Zoe lounging on the bed

Zoe lounging on the bed

This is a cautionary tale for anybody with cats. We all have heard about hairballs and cats – right? The hacking they do to “cough up” a hairball is well known. I even recall an extremely humorous scene in Shrek 2! However, what can be confused as a hairball cough could actually be something much more serious. Here’s my story.

Last summer we started noticing one of our older cats, Zoe, coughing. We thought it was a hairball, as she was a fastidious groomer, with plenty of hair. So we shrugged it off. After awhile, I thought perhaps I should try to help this process and got her some Hairball Remedy. Zoe didn’t care much for this, but I tried my best to get her to take some of it each day. I also bought some cat food formulated for hairball prevention. We started brushing her often (which she loved). However, she continued to try to cough up a hairball…or so we thought. 

As the coughing continued, we slowly…so slowly…noticed small changes in Zoe. First it was MORE coughing, then I started to realize there was in fact, never a hairball to be seen. This perplexed me, because surely, after all this, we would have seen a hairball SOMEWHERE. Then suddenly we noticed she seemed to have slightly labored breathing, along with what seemed to be an odd weight loss, although she still retained quite a lot of fat. This startled me into reality, and I took her to the vet immediately. Something was definitely not right. I thought perhaps this hairball issue had become stuck or clogged or something!

At the veterinarian’s office, Zoe was x-rayed and examined, and blood work done. The results that came back were less than encouraging, and there was definitely no simple hairball problem.



Zoe’s blood work was horrible – I cannot recall the exact details but things weren’t good. Her x-ray showed massive amounts of fluid in her chest. So much so that they couldn’t see much at all to see if something else like a tumor was in there. Her liver was 1/2 the size it was supposed to, along with a list of other problems. We were obviously quite upset. How long had this been going on? All this time we thought she had a simple hairball and it was something so much more serious! We promptly got Zoe on a diuretic, which helps decrease fluid in the chest. Our hope was that we could get it decreased enough to get another x-ray and see what was going on exactly.

Zoe seemed to perk up on her diuretic, and the coughing, while still there, seemed to lessen. She still had some slightly labored breathing, but all in all she seemed to be doing better. Suddenly though, in the span of about a week, she spiraled downward quickly and there was nothing we could do to help her. All we could do was send her to the Rainbow Bridge to meet up with her brother Porsche (who had, coincidentally, passed away only 3 months prior….).

It is a sad story, I know. Heartbreaking to share, but I felt I needed to so that others can learn from our hard lessons. Don’t be afraid to bring your pet into the vet for any small thing, because you just never know when it might be something serious.

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About the author: Melissa is a devoted pet owner with several cats: Kai, Cirrhi & Ritter; and the newest addition, Emme a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Melissa is an avid dog agility enthusiast, and hopes her new pup will someday be an agility champion! She is a Graphic Designer and Project Coordinator for the DrsFosterSmith.com and LiveAquaria.com websites. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Michigan State University and is a lifelong pet lover and owner. See more articles by Melissa R.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Max Power May 21, 2017 at 4:02 am

Just have to ask, why are you scared of your tabby cat ?

Suzanne July 13, 2017 at 12:55 am

Sorry for your loss. I’m taking my cat Russel to the vet tomorrow because of your story. Thank you

Haylie September 21, 2017 at 8:44 am

My kitten seems to be having something similar. She has no signs of infection, though she coughs in a way that sounds like their is fluid in her lungs or a hairball coming up. I took her to the vet and they said not to worry unless signs of infection present themselves. I am not sure what to do. Any ideas?

lee mobley August 12, 2018 at 11:37 am

A stray showed up in my yard with kittens. She would stretch her neck way out and cough, swinging her head side to side. I thought it was hairballs. I tamed her and it got worse. The vet took xrays and discovered lung worms. Caused by eating wild prey. Totally treatable with worm medicine in food. Macy Gray is now doing just fine! She eats cat food now.

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