Cat Hairballs 101: How to Help
Sharing your home with a cat has many upsides—hairballs are not one of them. It might come as a surprise that hairballs are not an inevitable part of a cat’s life. Yes, cats do a lot of grooming and ingest a lot of fur in the process. But when all is well, that hair should pass uneventfully through their digestive tract and come out in the litter box.
Let’s look at why that doesn’t always happen and what you can do to treat and prevent hairballs in cats.
What Does a Cat Hairball Look Like?
In its most common form, a hairball looks like a wad of fur that has a somewhat tubular shape after being forced up through the esophagus. Fresh hairballs are usually wet, but they can dry out quickly if they go unnoticed. You may at first confuse a hairball with cat poop and think that your cat went outside their litter box.
Sometimes cat hairballs aren’t so well-formed. For example, you might come across a looser tangle of fur mixed with some food, mucus, or fluid, which may be tinged with bile. In these cases, it can be hard to figure out if your cat is vomiting because of the hair or if the hair was just brought up with everything else.
Image credits: Roo the cat
Why Is My Cat Getting Hairballs?
All cats swallow hair as they groom themselves, but why do some have problems with hairballs while others don’t?
Fur is not digestible. It’s made mostly of keratin, which isn’t broken down by the acids and enzymes in a cat’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract. And when a lot of fur is in the tract, it tends to get tangled into large clumps.
A healthy feline digestive tract is designed to handle normal amounts of fur passing through, but two types of problems lead to the development of hairballs:
Ingestion of more fur than normal, which can happen with:
Cats with skin diseases that lead to increased shedding or more self-grooming
Cats that overgroom because of stress, boredom, or behavioral problems
Diseases and issues affecting the GI tract:
Foreign bodies (an object in the GI tract)
Food allergies and other adverse food reactions
Any condition that slows the movement of material through the GI tract
What if My Cat Is Trying to Cough up a Hairball but Can’t?
Most people say the phrase “cough up a hairball,” but what’s actually happening is retching and vomiting. Sometimes retching can sound like coughing, but the hairball is in the cat’s digestive system, not their respiratory tract.
If you’re nearby when your cat is trying to bring up a hairball, you might notice some telltale behaviors. Many cats cry out and get restless when they feel like they’re about to vomit. Then, your cat’s abdomen will contract several times and you’ll hear them retching with the contractions.
But sometimes the hairball doesn’t come up on the first try or even the second, third, or fourth. You may hear the retching and see wet spots that look like clear or brown liquid where your cat tried to bring up the hairball as they move around from spot to spot.
If they do succeed in vomiting up the hairball, they should seem to immediately feel better and go back to their normal behaviors. This is what sets hairballs apart from other cases of cat vomiting, which usually result in persistent nausea combined with other symptoms like lethargy and a poor appetite.
Call your veterinarian for advice if your cat tries to vomit two or three times in a day, whether they bring anything up or not, or if the vomiting continues for more than a day or two. You may be dealing with a hairball that has become stuck or you may not be dealing with a hairball at all.
Treating Hairballs in Cats
Cats that only bring up a hairball once a month or so generally don’t need to be seen by a veterinarian for a thorough health workup. Trying a little home treatment makes sense.
But veterinary care is essential if your cat is having hairballs more often than this or if you’re seeing other symptoms, like poor appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.
Are There Home Remedies for Cat Hairballs?
Home treatment is not appropriate for cats that have frequent hairballs. An underlying health problem is usually to blame for their formation, and if it isn’t treated, the cat won’t get better.
But for infrequent hairball episodes, here are several safe home remedies that you can try:
- Over-the-Counter Hairball Medicine — Hairball-control gels, like Laxatone, act as lubricants and ease the passage of fur through the GI tract. Look for flavored options that your cat will lick right up.
- Vet-Approved Natural Remedies — High-fiber nutritional supplements are a natural way to sweep hair through the digestive system. Some products, including Vet's Best Chewable Tablets Hairball Control Supplement for Cats, also contain herbal remedies that can help support a healthy digestive tract.
- Hairball Treats — If the thought of giving your cat medications fills you with dread, a hairball treat may be the way to go. PetHonesty Dual Texture Hairball Support Chews are high in fiber, and many pet parents report that even finicky cats love them.
- Hairball Control Food for Cats — Perhaps the easiest way to manage hairballs at home is to switch your cat to a high-fiber hairball control food. Wet foods, like Purina Pro Plan Hairball Control or Hill's Science Diet Adult Hairball Control, are the healthiest options, but dry hairball control foods are available as well.
Never give your cat cooking oils, butter, lard, grease, or mineral oil in an attempt to help them with hairballs. Cooking oils and fats will merely be digested and won’t help. Mineral oil is very dangerous if inhaled, which can easily happen when a cat is vomiting.
How Vets Diagnose and Treat Hairballs in Cats
The veterinarian will first ask questions about what you’ve seen at home and your cat’s health history, and then they will give your cat a physical exam.
Testing may include skin scrapings to look for mites, ringworm cultures, cytology to rule out skin infections, abdominal X-rays or ultrasound, blood work, urinalysis, fecal examinations, a hypoallergenic food trial, or biopsies of the gastrointestinal tract or skin. These tests will help the vet diagnose whatever is causing the hairballs.
If there’s an underlying health or behavioral issue, the vet will recommend treatment to address it.
Surgery is usually needed to remove very large hairballs that are blocking a cat’s GI tract. The doctor will examine your cat’s entire digestive system for other hairballs and repair or remove any damaged tissues that are found.
How To Prevent Cat Hairballs
Once your cat is hairball-free, you can start thinking about prevention. Underlying health problems may need continued management, but you can also try these tips:
- Brush your cat more often to reduce the hair they ingest. This is especially important for long-haired cats.
- Give your cat Laxatone or another hairball-control gel two or three times per week.
- Add fiber to your cat’s diet through treats and nutritional supplements or by switching to a hairball control food.
Together, you and your veterinarian can come up with the best way to treat and prevent hairballs. Your cat will thank you!
Featured image: iStock.com/krblokhin
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