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COUGH vs HAIRBALL vs VOMIT
It is very common to assume that hacking/gulping noise your cat is making is just a hairball…CAUTION…it may actually be a cough or vomit, which are much more serious. Remember-"coughing up a hairball" has an end result…a visible wet ball of hair! If your cat is acting like it has a hairball, but doesn't bring anything up or brings up something other than hair…that is NOT "just a hairball". Schedule a veterinary exam for your cat. If possible, bring a short video of what your cat is doing to the appointment.
Here are a few videos to help you differentiate the three. CAUTION-they are graphic!
Notice the violent contraction of the abdominal wall and the moist gulping sounds. This cat actually brought up a clump of hair. Most true "hairballs" only consist of clear liquid and hair.
notice the hoarse/hacking sound the cat is making. the head and neck are extended and often "snaking". nothing is produced except maybe an occasional droplet of mucous.
Notice this looks very similar to the cat bringing up a hairball (see above). This cat only brought up brown fluid-no hair. Some vomit does contain a small amount of hair-but not usually in "balls". Vomit can contain anything that your pet recently ingested (small fragments of hair, water, food, plant material, etc)