“Doctor, I found this on the floor in my home and I am not sure which end of my cat it came out of!”  Mrs. Carlin began to open up a little bag she had brought along with her and her cat Smokey.  Smokey was Mrs. Carlin’s first cat and he had beautiful, medium length gray hair.  I knew what we were dealing with before I saw the contents of the bag–Smokey’s first hairball.

One of the inevitable and un-enviable duties of being a cat owner is cleaning up vomit! Hairballs are the most common cause of vomiting in cats.  For some cats vomiting is normal because they have a hairball or have eaten too quickly.  For other cats, vomiting is a sign of serious disease.

Finding your first hairball is a scary experience.  They can be large, tubular structures, or they can be small and mixed with food or fluid.  Hairballs are a normal physiologic occurrence in cats, but there is no veterinary consensus on how they should be managed.  There are four common remedies to help decrease the frequency or size of hairballs: lubricants, fiber supplements, diet, and improved grooming. The most important thing to remember about any hairball remedy is that it is a management tool for a normal process.  Hair is not digestible and it needs to pass out of one end of the cat or the other.

Mineral oil should never be used to control hairballs.  If a cat does not swallow it properly, small oil droplets enter the airways and cause problems.  There are numerous safe lubricants, which are malt or tuna flavored petroleum pastes.   Some cats love these products and readily lick them from your finger or off of their paws, but others refuse it or shake it off.  Some cat treats contain a lubricant in their middles.  Dosing regiments vary from daily to a few times weekly.  The only problem with giving too much lubricant is soft stools.

The fiber supplement, psyllium, is sold as powders, capsules, or chewable treats as a hairball remedy. It can be administered directly into a cat’s mouth or mixed in with food.  The fiber helps cleanse the lining of the intestines and promotes normal intestinal contractions.   This helps hair pass in the stool.

Hairball diets are now widely available.  These diets contain fiber and/or are of a shape that is thought to reduce hair buildup in a cat’s stomach and intestines.  Many owners like these diets, but there are not any currently published scientific studies supporting the claims of hairball diets.  Beneficial reports are based on owner feedback and theories.

You can help reduce the amount of hair your cat ingests by combing and bathing your cat more frequently.  Shaving down your cat’s hair coat can also reduce hairballs, since shorter hair does not build up as quickly in the stomach or intestines.

When should you be concerned with hairballs?  If your cat is vomiting but not producing hairballs, another problem is likely.  For example asthmatic cats cough, gag, and extend their necks similarly to those with a hairball. If your cat cannot hold down food and water there is danger of dehydration and gastrointestinal obstruction.  This is another cause of immediate concern.  It is possible for hairballs to become impacted and require surgical removal.  Frequent hairballs and unrelated vomiting can be signs of another disease—inflammatory bowel disease.

Remember that hairballs are normal, but an increased frequency or lack of response to common remedies is a sign that something else is going on.  Seek veterinary advice in these situations.

Mrs. Carlin was relieved to learn that Smokey’s problem was a hairball.  Smokey was relieved that his visit to my office was short and that he would not need any medication.  He thought the lubricant hairball paste tasted pretty good and he enjoyed being combed more frequently by his owner.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic