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Reducing Hairballs Is Not A Big Fat Hairy Deal

I love cat fur when I get to pet a soft furry coat. I hate cat fur it when I step on a squishy hairball. Ew!

Frequent hairballs are not normal for cats. If you know a cat who has more than one a month, try some of these tips to reduce or eliminate hairballs.

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What Are Hairballs?

Hairballs are compressed masses of fur, saliva, and undigested food that look like thick, hairy cigars. They’re formed anywhere in a cat’s digestive system, from the back of the throat to the anus, and they typically pass through the system without incident. Most people are only aware of their cats having a hairball when cats puke one up, which happens when the hairball gets too big to pass through their digestive system out the other end.

Hairballs can be deadly. It’s rare, but I’ve heard a number of stories of cats who have died while coughing up hairballs that block their airways or that block their intestines.

Hairballs are one of the three general forms of cat vomit. They differ from other types of barfing in several ways:

  • Hairballs are always tube-shaped.
  • Hairballs are very clearly compressed masses of fur. Bits of food might be present, but the obvious main ingredient is compacted fur.
  • Hairballs contain very little, if any, visible liquid bile.

When To Call A Vet

It’s typical that cats eating processed foods throw up one or two hairballs a month, but sometimes hairballs are not normal and be a sign of an underlining medical condition. Consult with a veterinarian when cats have any of the following symptoms:

  • Inability to defecate
  • Straining or crying in the litter box.
  • Loss of appetite or refusal to eat or drink. Cats should never fast – fasting is always a symptom of a serious health problem.
  • Continuous or repeated retching or gagging, dry heaving cough.
  • Swollen or tender abdomen.
  • Lethargy.

Also consult with a vet if your cat has chronic hairballs – hurling more than once a month – because this situation can pose some serious problems, including:

  • Ulcers. Stomach acid that is trapped in place can lead to ulcers and to erosion of the stomach lining.
  • Constipation. Hairballs in the intestines can block feces and gas from moving through the digestive system as usual.
  • Electrolyte imbalances. Frequent puking of any kind can cause electrolyte imbalances which can lead to dehydration, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, dizziness, confusion, restlessness, agitation, seizure, and even coma.
  • Oral health problems. Frequent exposure to gastric acid can cause tooth decay and other oral health issues.

What Causes Hairballs?

Cats swallow fur when they groom themselves. Fur is not easy to digest so it can stay in a cat’s stomach for quite a while until there is enough fur and saliva to form a hairball. (Contrary to what most of us assume, cats’ bodies do not digest things in the order they are swallowed. Instead, stuff moves through their digestive system in order of digestibility. Less digestible things hang out in their digestive systems longer.)

They swallow fur because of the little barbs (papillae) on their tongue. When cats groom their coats, their tongues act like brushes. Because the barbs point toward the back of the throat, they swallow most of the fur removed by their tongues.

The growth cycle of cat fur can also come into play. Cat fur has a resting phase and a growth phase, which are triggered by seasonal changes. The growth phase begins with the shedding of old hair along with the growth of new hair. Outdoor cats usually shed twice a year: spring and fall. But indoor cats are often in a state of chronic shedding and growth.

Skin and coat health. Diet greatly impacts the health of a cat’s coat because 30% of the protein they absorb goes toward hair growth. To help them get healthier skin and coats, have less shedding, and have less need for fur grooming they should eat high quality, highly digestible proteins; receive enough essential fatty acids; and eat foods they have not developed sensitivities to.

How to Treat & Prevent Hairballs

Brushing

Brushing regularly, particularly with the Furminator (which removes fur from the undercoat exactly like the barbs on cats’ tongues), can prevent hairballs before they even start.

Diet

Frequent hairballs can usually be minimized with a change in diet. Below are some of the most reliable dietary changes that can reduce hairballs. Before making dietary changes, be sure they’re aligned with the veterinarian’s feeding objectives for your cat.

Adding fiber to foods. Foods high in fiber help fur pass smoothly through the digestive tract so it won’t get stuck in the stomach. Below are the easiest fibers for cats to digest and for you to incorporate into their diet. Be careful to not add too much, as it can cause diarrhea, bloating, or gas, none of which are much healthier alternatives.

  • Psyllium husk and rice bran. Buy these in bulk and sprinkle them on top of the food you already feed your cat.
  • Pumpkin and squash. Add about 1 tablespoon, twice a day, of fresh pumpkin or squash. If you use canned, like me, be sure it contains only the fruit and water because lots of spices are toxic for cats. I use these with my own cats when they’re shedding or grooming more. My cats love it and eat it as if they’re getting treats. Some cats will only eat these when they’re mixed in with wet food.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) help maintain healthy skin and coat which reduces shedding and helps maintain a healthy digestive tract. Both of these benefits are helpful for cats with hairball issues.

Digestible proteins help with fur growth and maintenance. Healthy cat foods, like those found at Fluffy & Floyd’s or MudBay, contain healthy, digestible proteins.

Switch to a food for hairball control. If you don’t want to try adding the ingredients above, consider trying one of the commercial cat foods formulated for hairball control. These have added fiber (usually as powdered cellulose or beet pulp), fat emulsifiers (such as soy lecithin) which break down non-fur components in hairballs, or added enzymes which can help prevent hairballs from forming in the first place. Among my favorites* are:

  • AvoDerm “Indoor Weight Control Formula with Hairball Relief”
  • Natural Balance “Indoor Hairball”
  • Royal Canin “Indoor Intense Hairball”
  • Innova “Senior Cat Hairball”
  • Nature’s Recipe “Indoor with Hairball Control”

* These aren’t the only brands with hairball formulary foods. They’re just my favorites. Stop by your favorite healthy pet supply store and you’ll find many more.

Hairball Treats

Hairball treats have either loads of fiber or a lubricant. The lubricants used most often are petrolatum (aka petroleum jelly or Vaseline) or mineral oil. These lubricants are not absorbed into cats’ digestive systems so hairballs get lubricated and passed into the litter box. Be sure to feed these treats only between meals because they’ll interfere with normal absorption of nutrients. Also, feed no more than the amount listed on the package because they can have a laxative effect. (Which causes its own problems, of course.) Still, nothing is as effective as these gooey treats for getting fully formed hairballs out of the preferred end of the cat. If your cat won’t eat these as treats, try crumbling treats on top of other treats.

Remedies I Do NOT Recommend

  • Plain petroleum jelly (aka Vaseline) is not a good option because it can bind with other nutrients and can result in nutritional deficiencies. Also it can have a laxative effect if you use too much. (And it’s tricky to figure out  how much is too much.)
  • Plain mineral oil can accidentally be inhaled, which can result in pneumonia. (And pneumonia can be deadly.) This also causes loose stool if you use too much. (This, too, is tricky to figure out  how much is too much.)
  • Butter and vegetable oil are also not healthy alternatives. They come with a host of health risks that are exaggerated versions of the risks humans have when we eat too much of these things.
  • Edible oils, like olive oil and fish oil, are nutritionally ok but they are not effective on hairballs because they’re absorbed by the intestines. Cod-liver oil contains too much vitamin A and D, so it’s also not a good idea.

(Note: I do not accept payment for mentions or reviews of products and services that I write about on this site.)

Select Sources

  • CatHealth.com. “Hairballs”. http://www.cathealth.com/skin-and-fur/hairballs. 23 Sept 2012.
  • Christensen, Wendy. Outwitting cats: Tips, tricks, and techniques for persuading the felines in your life that what you want is also what they want. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2004.
  • Dethioux, Fabienne. “Royal Canin viewpoint: Nutrition, skin health and coat quality.” Veterinary focus 18.1 (2008). 10 April 2009. www.edliny.com/Encyclopedy/Veterinary%20Focus/181/6.pdf. 2 Sept 2012.
  • Johnson-Bennett, Pam. Think like a cat: How to raise a well-adjusted cat, not a sour puss. New York: Penguin, 2000.
  • Pitcairn, Richard and Pitcairn, Susan. Dr. Pitcairn’s complete guide to natural health for dogs & cats. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 1995.

 

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2 comments to Reducing Hairballs Is Not A Big Fat Hairy Deal

  • Shirley Turnbull

    Hi. My cat gets furballs
    I would like to use cod liver oil or omega 3 oil. How much would I give her on a refular basis. Thank you.

  • Those are nutritionally very good. However, they will not reduce hairballs because they’re absorbed by the intestines.

    The recommended amounts should be printed on the packaging label somewhere. The amount to give varies depending on your cat’s weight and which product you’re using. I’m guessing it’ll recommend something between 1/2 tsp and 2 tsp a day?

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