How to Prevent Hairballs in Cats

For cat owners, the hacking, gagging, and coughing sound of their distressed cat bringing up a hairball is disturbing, but for some, it's all too familiar. A side effect of their meticulous grooming habits, hairballs, which are regurgitated cat hair covered in digestive fluids, can form in cats' stomachs. Hairballs occur when the hair build-up is not broken down in the digestive process, so it exits via the esophagus when the cat vomits. Then it lands right on your floor for you to clean up.

The best way to deal with hairballs is through preventive measures. Hairballs can, in some cases, create serious, even life-threatening obstructions. A hairball now and then is not an issue, but you should not see a pattern of hairballs in a healthy cat. One of the best ways to prevent hairballs is by brushing your cat every day to remove excess hair.

Brushing the cat
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What are hairballs?

Even short-haired cats can get hairballs, although it is more common in long-haired cats such as Persians and Maine coons. Hairballs are a by-product of the grooming process when loose hair is caught on the sharp, backward-facing barbs or hooks of the cat's rough tongue, then swallowed, eventually forming balls if the fur doesn't pass. Cats who are excessive or obsessive groomers or just super-fastidious will naturally grab more hair from their coats. Kittens don't often have hairballs since they haven't mastered self-grooming yet.

Cats' guts are designed to process fur; their own as well as that of their prey, therefore, fur ordinarily passes through the cat's gastrointestinal system quite nicely into the litter box. But sometimes these balls of fur morph into a nasty blockage in the pyloris or outgoing part of the stomach. When the cat eats, the food cannot pass through this clump of fur in its stomach, and it's vomited back up. The vomitus is composed primarily of hair along with semi-digested food AKA a hairball.

Hairballs can also be the result of health issues that impact the movement of hair through the gastrointestinal tract associated with the following:

  • Motility disorders.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Neoplasia lymphoma.

Food that prevents hairballs and home-remedy hairball prevention

Many commercial cat foods, both wet, canned food, and dry kibble, are formulated to control hairballs in cats and typically fiber-rich with low carbohydrates. Their effectiveness is measured by how well the food helps hair pass through the digestive system and out the other end. While addressing the dietary needs and nutritive requirements of cats, this specially formulated food helps move the fur through the digestion tract effortlessly. Some hairball-prevention foods to consider, based on positive reviews, are Purina ONE Hairball Formula, Hill's Science Diet Hairball Control, and Blue Buffalo Hairball Control.

British short-hair cat is eating
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Check the labels on your cat's food to prevent hairballs. If you feed your cat a commercial diet, you should avoid products that have an ingredient list that starts with meat by-products. Also, avoid those that contain starches, fats, cornmeal, wheat gluten, and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

On the other hand, if you eschew commercial diets for a natural, holistic approach to cat care, here are some fresh, whole foods that can decrease the odds your cat will have hairballs; in effect, they are home-remedy hairball prevention:

  • Canned pumpkin: Mix one to two tablespoons of plain, canned pumpkin into your cat's food once or twice a week, either slightly warmed or right out of the can. Pumpkin is super-fibrous, which is just the ticket to keep your cat regular and simultaneously push swallowed hair out in the stool. Consult with your veterinarian if your cat has frequent diarrhea which may not be compatible with the pumpkin.
  • Olive oil: A teaspoon of olive oil or another natural lubricant such as butter mixed into your cat's food once a week helps your cat digest her food and lubricates her digestive system enabling the hairball to slide on through without any disturbance to the stomach. Lubricants such as these are also natural laxatives, so consult with your veterinarian.

Tools to prevent hairballs

Anecdotal evidence, in the form of rave reviews from satisfied customers, indicates that the FURminator Hairball Prevention Waterless Spray works to prevent hairballs and excess shedding in cats over six-weeks-old. Promoting a healthy skin and coat while reducing the amount of loose hair, the FURminator waterless spray also quickly neutralizes odor and removes dander. FURminator waterless spray is formulated without parabens or chemical dyes and is a godsend for cats who have hairball issues and their people. Shake the product well, then spray generously onto your cat's coat. While many cats may not like the direct spray of the cold product on their body, you can apply it to your hands, a cloth or a wipe, work it into your cat's coat, then towel dry. No rinsing is needed.

Of course, a good quality comb and brush are old standbys and key tools in your arsenal to prevent hairballs. Use your grooming tools every day, even for short-haired cats; 10 minutes of brushing is invaluable for bonding with your cat and more than worth the extra effort to alleviate hairballs. The less loose hair on your cat equates to fewer or no hairballs.

Woman combs a dozing cat's fur.
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The dark side of hairballs

The veterinary community recognizes that hairballs are a symptom rather than a problem in and of itself. Identifying and treating the underlying cause of the hairballs, whether it be the gastrointestinal tract or the skin, is the key to solving those issues.

In conclusion, chronic or recurrent hairballs are not a normal occurrence in otherwise healthy cats. And if you see any of the following symptoms in your cat who has experienced frequent hairball episodes, seek veterinary care and diagnosis as it could indicate a serious blockage:

  • Continual retching, gagging, or hacking and not producing a hairball.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Lethargy or lack of energy.
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation