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The Ubiquitous Hairball

How to Prevent Hairballs and How to Get Rid of Them

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Picture of a Pile of Cat Fur

Pile of Cat Fur

Photo Credit: © Franny Syufy
Nothing is quite so alarming as hearing the "hack-hack-hack" of a cat trying to cough up a hairball. And almost nothing is as disgusting as seeing one on the floor, unless it is stepping on it at night in bare feet. Ughh! Seriously though, although 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.

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!

Most cats enjoy being brushed, and the bonding that develops during cat and human during these brushing times is an added bonus. Our cats will practically brush their own faces. One of us holds the brush still, and Jenny or Jasper will rub their faces against the bristles, purring to beat the band. When our Bubba was alive, he even enjoyed being vacuumed following a brushing; he learned at a very early age that the vacuum is harmless, and it's like having his own personal spa.

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 we've been able extract huge piles of cat fur just after one or two grooming sections.

Other ways of preventing or aiding hairball relief involve feeding "slippery" substances that will help the passage of hair and digestive waste down the intestinal tract. These come in several different forms:

  • 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 which breaks down the fat globules, allowing the hairball to pass. From a Press Release Issued at that time:

    "In the new hairball formulas developed by Nestle Purina, an edible emulsifier called soy lecithin helps break down existing hairballs, allowing them to pass more easily through a cat's digestive tract, and minimizes the formation of new ones. The technology's main advantage, says Jackson, is that it provides good hairball control with less fiber than traditional hairball formulas.

    "High-fiber diets help to push hair through the digestive tract. But they also aren't as digestible, so cats need to eat more food for proper nutrition," she says. "Adding a fat emulsifier in conjunction with a lower fiber level addresses the hairball problem while allowing cats to absorb the nutrients they need."

  • 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 are also sometimes used to help with constipation or diarrhea, because of their added fiber.

Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. 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.

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