Patient Info: Hairballs in Cats

Hairballs are caused by a cat’s ingestion of fur during grooming, which can take place for up to one-third of her waking hours. Once ingested, fur moves to your cat’s stomach and intestines via peristalsis (the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the intestinal muscles), where it will eventually be eliminated. However, if the hairs become entangled, they may form a mass that can no longer be eliminated via the normal route and therefore is thrown up.

In some cases, hairballs may persist in the intestines and form a dangerous intestinal obstruction.1 Hairballs are hard to miss, but if you’ve never seen one, they’re more of a cylindrical shape than a ball, tend to be slimy or phlegm-covered, and probably, the same color as your cat’s fur.

From a distance, or if it’s dried out, it may look like poop, so if you spot something on the floor, closer inspection may be needed to identify a hairball versus a litterbox faux pas.

On the surface level, keeping your cat regularly brushed can help prevent hairballs by removing loose fur, especially in the case of long-haired cats or those who engage in excessive grooming. This is more of a Band-Aid solution, however, because if your cat is having hairballs often, there’s probably something going on beneath the surface.

Hairballs in Cats Can Be a Sign of Chronic Disease

Frequent vomiting of hairballs is a symptom worthy of a trip to your veterinarian, particularly in short-haired cats, and here’s why: It could be a sign of an underlying chronic disease that is either causing your cat to ingest too much fur or altering the motility of her gastrointestinal tract.2

Research into the topic is scarce, but at least one study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery suggested that itchy skin diseases, flea infestation, and underlying dietary intolerances could all be contributing factors to frequent hairballs.3 Other research suggests that hairballs may be more likely to occur in cats during prolonged fasting (when intestinal motility is reduced) as well as in long-haired cats and cats that don’t consume enough fiber.4

Dietary factors are key, especially if your cat eats dry food or kibble. It’s difficult for cats on kibble to consume the moisture they need for their body to function optimally, and this includes the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A moisture-depleted GI tract will not be able to efficiently transport hair and other waste out of the body the way a well-hydrated GI tract can.

Further, any GI issue or irritant can compromise your cat’s ability to deal with ingested hair. This includes inflammatory bowel disease(IBD), dysbiosis (an imbalance of your cat’s microbiome), parasites, cancer, or even ingested substances in food (dyes, additives, and pesticide residues) or foreign bodies that may be irritating the GI tract.

In most cases, your cat will vomit up a hairball with little immediate consequences; however, more serious underlying conditions could be behind them, necessitating a trip to the vet. In addition, hairball complications can occur, including intestinal obstruction.5 If your cat is coughing or retching like she’s about to vomit up a hairball — but doesn’t — it could be because it’s too large to pass. See your veterinarian immediately in this case.

How to Eliminate Your Cat’s Hairballs

The first step I recommend for cats struggling with hairballs is dietary in nature. Ditch the kibble in favor of a moisture-rich, species-appropriate diet that will get your cat’s GI tract in top working order. Sardines (in water) are an excellent addition to your cat’s diet, as they’re rich in omega-3 fats, which will support her GI tract health further (an alternative is to give your cat an omega-3 supplement).

Increasing fiber intake is also important, as studies suggest fiber such as sugarcane fiber can help prevent hairball formation in cats.6 In another study, giving cats chews made of psyllium (a type of soluble fiber) and slippery elm (an herb with emollient and expectorant properties) helped reduce signs of hairballs such as coughing, retching, and vomiting by 29 percent.7

I recommend mixing the contents of a capsule of psyllium seed husk powder with a tablespoon of water and stirring it into your cat’s food, as I’m not a fan of sugarcane fiber or beet pulp.

You can also add a pinch of coconut fiber to each meal or alternate it with a teaspoon of 100 percent canned pumpkin or freshly cooked mashed pumpkin. Animal-sourced digestive enzymes, added to your cat’s food, can also be helpful in hairball-prone cats. In addition to the dietary changes, make it a point to brush or comb your cat more often (daily for long-haired cats, and three or four times a week for cats with short hair).

While these new changes are taking place, you can try a natural hairball remedy to help any lingering hairballs pass through your cat’s GI tract. Do not use products that contain petroleum jelly or mineral oil for this purpose. Instead, choose a natural variety made with slippery elm, marshmallow or papaya.

Organic coconut oil can also be used; simply put a dab on your cat’s nose or top of her paw and she’ll lick it off, helping to coat the hairball for easier elimination. In many cases, hairballs will disappear after following these steps, but if they persist, see your holistic veterinarian for a thorough exam.