Ahhh, hairballs… the bane of cat ownership. My cat deposited one in my shoe awhile back. I’m still having trouble believing that her aim wasn’t intentional.
Technically speaking, hairballs are not normal. Cats have been grooming themselves for thousands of years and their digestive tracts are built to handle the hair that is inevitably swallowed. That said; when I’m presented with a cat that brings up the occasional hairball and absolutely everything else appears to be perfectly normal, I don’t initially recommend an exhaustive work-up (that would take gastrointestinal biopsies). I will perform a physical (looking for both GI problems and dermatological conditions that could increase shedding), run a fecal exam, and if I feel they’re warranted (or the owner wants to be especially thorough), recommend a comprehensive panel of blood work (including a check of thyroid levels) and a urinalysis.
If nothing unusual is found, trying some symptomatic treatment is reasonable at this point. I turn to one of three options:
- Adding fiber to the diet.
The bulk of additional dietary fiber essentially “sweeps” hair through the digestive tract, preventing it from clumping together in the stomach. A simple way to add fiber to a cat’s current diet is to mix in a little canned pumpkin. Surprisingly, many cats seem to love it. Commercially prepared dry and canned hairball remedy diets are also available and can be good options.
- Changing diets to a formula with fewer potential allergens.
Gastrointestinal inflammation (often caused by food allergies and/or inflammatory bowel disease) is at the bottom of many chronic cases of hairballs. A prescription, hypoallergenic diet is ideal, but over-the-counter limited antigen foods can be tried as long as owners understand that if a cat’s response isn’t ideal, a more restrictive food trial will still be necessary.
- Adding lubricants to the diet.
Hairball gels typically contain petroleum jelly, waxes, or oils. They work by making the hair in the GI tract more slippery and therefore less likely to clump together. I do not recommend force feeding these types of hairball remedies; the stress outweighs any potential benefit. But if the cat likes the taste and will ingest it herself (putting a small amount on top of the paw works well), this is an acceptable option.
Owners should also increase the number of times per week the cat is brushed. This will help any of the above solutions work better since hair in the brush isn’t being swallowed.
As long as your cat is not losing weight or vomiting up hair more than once a week or so, feel free to try some or all of these recommendations before calling your veterinarian. But if they don’t work, it’s time to make an appointment. The doctor can look closely for any health conditions that may be playing a role in the formation of hairballs and make appropriate treatment and dietary recommendations.
Don’t delay; if you were vomiting on a regular basis, wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of things sooner rather than later?
Dr. Jennifer Coates