Hairball Management for Cats

Two long-haired cats looking out a window

Why Do Hairballs Form?

With cats spending 15 to 50 percent of their day grooming themselves, you may think that hairballs are a completely normal occurrence. And while the occasional hairball shouldn’t be a cause for concern, a weekly hairball on the living room rug is an indicator that your cat’s digestive issues need a closer look.

Most hair that your cat consumes will pass in their stool. But occasionally, a ball of hair forms in the stomach that doesn’t move into the small intestine. While the majority of any hairball ball is hair, it can also contain up to 30 percent fat. Long-haired cats and those obsessive groomers are more likely to get hairballs because they swallow a lot more hair than other cats.

And if you’ve never seen a hairball, you may be surprised to notice that they don’t look like balls at all. The typical hairball is a sausage-shaped wad of hair that’s usually about an inch long (although it’s not unusual for hairballs to be as long as 5 inches).

How Many Is Too Many Hairballs?

An occasional hairball isn’t a reason to sound the alarm, but a weekly hairball may indicate that something abnormal is happening. That’s because food should move out your cat’s stomach at a spritely 0.2 to 2 hours, which shouldn’t give hair a chance to clump and form into a hairball. Therefore, when hairballs start to form on the regular, it’s possible your cat’s digestive system has a problem.

Your concern should extend beyond your cat’s slow digestive tract–vomiting is hard on your cat’s teeth and esophagus. The acidic vomit will wear down the enamel on their teeth and can irritate their esophageal lining. And incredibly frequent vomiting can lead to an electrolyte imbalance, along with dehydration.

Sometimes it’s tempting to discount vomiting if there are no hairballs involved. You may think that your cat eats too fast, has a sensitive stomach or it’s just normal behavior for them. Unfortunately, regular vomiting is nearly always a sign that something else is involved. You can try a diet change if you’re concerned that a food sensitivity is causing the issue, but it’s worth a visit to the veterinarian if the vomiting persists for them to take a more in-depth look, which may include bloodwork and imaging to rule out any other major health concerns.

It’s worth a visit to the veterinarian if vomiting persists for them to take a more in-depth look.

cat drinking and another cat being brushed

Want to Prevent Hairballs? Time for Some Brushing Bonding Time

Many people compare a cat’s tongue to sandpaper, but if you look closely it actually resembles a VELCRO® fastener. Your cat’s tongue is covered in tiny spines that look a lot like miniature cat claws. Each of these spines–called papillae–is made of the same material as your fingernails. These spines point back towards your cat’s throat, so anything that gets caught on your cat’s tongue ends up in their stomach.

So, if you want to reduce the hair in your cat’s stomach, start by reducing the amount they can consume. Brushing your cat once a day–if they’ll allow it–is a fantastic way to remove loose hair while enjoying some bonding time with your cat.

Tapping into your cat’s natural cycle of hunt-eat-groom-sleep-repeat will also increase your chance of grooming success. Start a grooming session with a few minutes of interactive play. Then, feed your cat a few treats to reward them for a successful hunt. Then, try carefully brushing your cat’s fur. When your cat seems like they are done with brushing time, allow them to leave and take a nap.

It’s important to learn to read your cat’s body language when encouraging them to accept brushing. Some cats may only tolerate less than 30 seconds of brushing at a time. But if you allow your cat to leave when they seem uncomfortable, you may be able to add a few extra seconds per brushing session. Over time, your cat may learn to love the mild massage brushing provides.

If your cat tolerates bathing, a monthly bath can be a good way to loosen and remove excess fur. For cats that don’t appreciate baths, you can try dry shampoos, grooming foams and wipes. Cats can be very sensitive to certain essential oils and synthetics, so be sure to use a product made for feline use.

Super Groomers

Some cats don’t just groom themselves. They want to share the love by grooming their beloved friends–which can include other cats, dogs and other furry members of your household. As cute as it can be, if your cat regularly has hairballs, the hair they are vomiting up may not be their own. Unfortunately, a cat’s digestive tract can’t digest the amount of hair they could get off a Golden Retriever.

Tips to Help Your Cat Love Brushing

Some cats love brushing while other cats need to be gently coaxed. If you’re having trouble convincing your cat that brushing can be a rewarding part of their day, you can try a few of these tricks:

Look for a brush your cat loves. Retractable slicker brushes are a favorite for many cats, and they’re easy to clean after a few strokes. However, your cat may prefer another type of brush, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Start each brushing session when your cat is relaxed. Again, after a meal is usually a good time.

Be careful when brushing your cat. If you encounter any mats or tangles, work carefully to remove them. Cats have very delicate skin, so it’s important to take your time.

Never brush against the direction of the fur. It’s uncomfortable for your cat.

Never use scissors to remove a mat from your cat’s fur. If you must cut out a mat, you’ll need to use clippers to very gently remove it. A cat’s skin frequently gets pulled into the center of a mat, and their skin can be very thin. Therefore, it’s very easy to cut your cat’s skin and cause severe injury when removing mats. Go to your vet for mat removal when at all possible.

Don’t discount the value of a few treats. A high-value treat that your cat rarely gets may be the inducement they need to accept a few strokes of a brush. Then, as time goes on, you can try just giving them a larger treat at the end of a brushing session to reward their good behavior.

Diet Changes That Can Reduce Hairballs

Brushing can prevent some hair from entering your cat’s mouth, but diet changes may help guide swallowed hair through the digestive tract. While sometimes a high-fiber diet can help a cat pass hairballs more quickly, we favor trying frozen raw food first. Frozen raw food contains large amounts of moisture, as well as enzymes that help your cat digest their food. Because of the food’s low carbohydrate content, it also tends to move through the stomach faster. These factors help many cats pass their food more quickly–and the hair that is also in their stomach.

If frozen raw food isn’t feasible, you can try wet food or supplementing your cat’s kibble with wet food. Wet food with oils, such as avocado oil, sunflower oil, and fish oils, may help your cat pass hairballs more easily. Foods that contain larger amounts of fiber, such as sweet potatoes, cellulose, pumpkin, pea fiber, chicory root, butternut squash, and apples, may bind to the hair and help it pass through your cat’s digestive tract.

You may think that changing diets is easier said than done. And it’s true that many cats are highly resistant to changing their diet in any way. But it’s very rare that a cat will absolutely refuse to eat any wet food. Sure, your cat may be particularly selective when choosing a protein or texture that works for their discerning palate, but most cats appreciate cooked food over kibble. Even if you can only convince your cat to eat partially wet food, the nutritional rewards in the form of more moisture and higher quality protein are worth the challenge.

Still, if kibble is the best choice for your unique circumstances, high fiber kibbles can help. Hairball formulas typically include rice hulls, pea fiber, beet pulp, cellulose, psyllium, rice bran, pectin or fructooligosaccharide (FOS) as a high-fiber additive.

Just Add Water text with cat and water puzzle pieces

indoor black cat looking a green grass

Offer Healthy Supplements to Augment Your Feline’s Diet

If you’re worried that a frozen, raw diet won’t give your cat the fiber they need, maybe you’ll want to consider growing edible grasses or plants. Cats who feel like they need a bit of extra fiber or some help passing some hair will happily eat what they want as they need it. You can also help them get a little fiber boost by adding pureed pumpkin or sweet potato to their food. Other cats might respond better to supplements that contain marshmallow root, slippery elm, or licorice.

Adding coconut oil or fish oil to a cat’s diet can also help with hairballs, and fish oil has additional, well-documented health benefits due to its high Omega-3 content.

Hairball gels can also help hairballs pass more easily through a cat’s digestive system. These gels have a base of mineral oil, soybean oil or petrolatum. When using these gels, it’s important to plan ahead and give them at least one hour before or after a meal. Otherwise, you risk the hairball gel interfering with your cat’s ability to absorb nutrients from their food.

Increasing the overall health of your cat’s digestive system can sometimes help reduce hairballs. Digestive supplements that contain enzymes and prebiotics can help your cat’s overall digestive tract work more effectively. That way, your cat is less likely to form a hairball in their stomach.

Hairballs That Require a Trip to Your Veterinarian

Notice hairballs twice a month or more? If your cat doesn’t respond to suggestions in this article, then it’s time to visit your veterinarian to discuss other possible solutions. Some underlying conditions can also cause hairballs. One of the most common causes were chronic enteritis (which includes Irritable Bowel Disease) and lymphoma. Lymphoma in particular benefits from early diagnosis, so you can discuss possible treatment options with your veterinarian.

Rarely, a hairball grows too large to be safely passed. It might block your cat’s intestines or stay lodged in the stomach. Either issue can create a serious problem that requires immediate medical attention. Diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain and lethargy are some indicators that your cat might have a hairball blockage.

A cardboard cat carrier