The Ubiquitous Hairball

Self-cleaning included.
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Nothing is quite so alarming as hearing the "hack-hack-hack" of a cat trying to cough up a hairball. Almost nothing is as disgusting as seeing one on the floor unless it is stepping on it at night in bare feet. While hairballs may be the topics of jokes among thoughtless humans, they are a source of discomfort or worse, for cats. Hairballs pose a potential danger by blocking the passage of digested food through the intestines, causing an impaction.

Hairballs are formed when a cat grooms itself and swallows hairs. Since hair is not easily digested, it can compact with undigested food in the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. Impactions are serious business, and sometimes must be removed surgically. In lesser cases, they can cause painful constipation, something no concerned caregiver wants to wish on her cat.

How to Recognize Hairball Problems

  • Cylindrical (cigar-shaped) masses on the floor or furniture. Once you've seen one, you'll never forget!
  • Constipation, or hard stools with hair showing.
  • Dry, matted coat
  • Frequent dry coughing or hacking, particularly after meals
  • Lack of interest in eating.
  • Depression or lethargy.

How to Get Rid of Hairballs

It would be wise not to wait until these symptoms appear, as hairballs can be so easily prevented. The number one way to avoid hairballs on the floor and in your cat is: brushing your cat!

Most cats enjoy being brushed, and the bonding that develops between cat and human during these brushing times is an added bonus. Some cats will practically brush their own faces. All it takes is a human to hold the bush and the cat will rub up against it, purring to beat the band. Some cats even enjoy being vacuumed following a brushing If a cat learns at a very early age that the vacuum is harmless, it's almost like having his own personal spa.

Speaking of vacuuming, it is equally important to vacuum all rugs and carpets frequently. It is essential, ​not only for good housekeeping but especially if you have people or cats with asthma in residence. It may sound amusing that a cat could be allergic to dander, but it is entirely possible.

One of the very best grooming tools for removing excess hair is the FURminator deShedding Tool. The cats enjoy the free "back-scratching" that goes along with the grooming, and it's possible to extract huge piles of cat fur just after one or two grooming sessions.

  • Special Hairball Formula Food
    Several of these are available on the market; the trick is finding one with high-quality ingredients. See Understanding Cat Food Labels for details.
  • Commercial Hairball Remedies
    These come in various forms, including tube-served gels and granules to be sprinkled on food. They provide assistance in passing hairballs through lubricating action or by providing soft bulk, or a combination of both. It should be noted that many hairball relief remedies contain mineral oil. Taken in quantities, mineral oil can deplete the body of vitamin A. If using one of these formulas, ask your veterinarian if a vitamin A supplement might be in order.
  • A Nutritional Solution
    In 2003, scientists from University of Wisconsin-Madison worked with researchers at the Nestle Purina PetCare Company, analyzed the composition of hairballs, and found a large fat content in the mix. They developed a fat emulsifier called soy lecithin, which breaks down the fat globules, allowing the hairball to pass. The philosophy of Purina is that this edible emulsifier is superior to high-fiber diets, which are less digestible. Purina also produces a special hairball relief cat food.​​
  • Home Solutions
    Some cat owners have had success by giving their cats a small amount of butter (about 1/2 teaspoon) two or three times a week. Others have offered a teaspoon of canned pumpkin (non-flavored) or baby food squash. Cats generally enjoy these extra "treats," and they may help by adding lubrication or soft bulk to help hairballs pass. The pumpkin or squash is sometimes used to help with constipation or diarrhea, because of their added fiber.

Disclaimer: This article is meant only to give you a starting place to do your own research so you can make an informed decision. Hairballs can be a serious problem, and your veterinarian is your first and best source of information on their control.