Live with cats for long enough and you’re bound to find a hairball on the floor (or in your bed, if you’re really unlucky), but hairballs don’t have to be a regular part of cat ownership.
Cats bring up hairballs frequently enough that it’s easy to think of them as being normal, but they really are a symptom of gastrointestinal dysfunction or a skin disease that is causing excessive hair loss. I regard hairballs in the same way that I do diarrhea. Are the conditions normal? No, but they are something that everyone has to deal with from time to time.
That said, once you’re finding hairballs more frequently than once a month or so, it’s time to go on a search for what’s wrong. A complete work-up from chronic or severe hairballs could include some combination of patient history, physical exam, skin scrapings for mites, tests for ringworm, skin cytology looking for bacterial/yeast infections, abdominal imaging, blood work, a urinalysis, fecal examinations, and sometimes biopsies of the gastrointestinal tract or skin.
But now let’s say you are only finding the occasional hairball and want to try something at home to reduce their frequency. In these cases, dietary management is the best way to limit hairballs.
Undiagnosed food allergies or inflammatory bowel disease often play a role in the formation of hairballs. These conditions cause the gastrointestinal tract to become inflamed and that inflammation interferes with the cat’s natural ability to deal with hair that is swallowed (in other words, keep it moving in the right direction). Limited antigen diets are available at pet food retailers. You will need to feed one of these foods (and nothing else!) for about eight weeks before you can say definitively if it is helping or not. If you’ve tried a couple of over the counter limited antigen foods with little success, keep in mind that the diets available through your veterinarian might still be worth a try. The veterinary diets tend to be significantly less allergenic than are over the counter limited antigen foods.
A high fiber diet will also help some cats with hairballs. Different types of fiber can either sweep hair through the intestinal tract or promote the overall health of the gut. Some pet food manufacturers have added fiber to their formulations creating “hairball” diets that work well for some individuals. If you are looking for a way to add fiber to your cat’s current food or want to try a limited antigen and high fiber diet, try mixing in a little canned pumpkin or unflavored psyllium.
Lubricant gels that contain petroleum jelly, waxes, or oils are another option. They coat hair in the GI tract and prevent it from forming clumps. Cats should not be forced to eat a hairball lubricant (the stress and mess outweighs any benefit), but try adding it to the food or putting a little on the cat’s paw for her to lick off. Do not give your cat a flavored hairball lubricant if you are also feeding a limited antigen diet.
And don’t forget this simple, non-dietary hairball remedy… brush your cat (assuming it’s a pleasant experience for the two of you). Any hair that you can toss in the garbage is hair that won’t be swallowed and eventually redeposited on your floor.
Dr. Jennifer Coates