The Low-Down on Hairballs

By Dr . Joi Sutton|2016-12-29T13:01:01-05:00Updated: November 29th, 2012|Pet Care, Pet Grooming, Pet Newsletter|0 Comments

Dog owners may say, “Ewwww!” at the thought of a cat tossing up a hairball. Some “non-cat people” might not believe that felines actually accumulate hair in their stomachs only to vomit them up on your favorite bedspread or white throw rug.

Who amongst us “cat people” haven’t at least once in our life unknowingly stepped on a wet, smelly hairball from our beloved cat? As with life, we take the good with the bad. We forgive an occasional hairball for the purring and snuggling and overall joy our cats bring us.

How does one diagnose a hairball? Usually we find the hairball and our cat is nowhere to be seen. Occasionally we witness our cat hacking and coughing or making weird neck movements before vomiting or regurgitating the wad of hair and stomach fluid, plus or minus some undigested food. Sometimes people diagnose their cats with hairballs because they see their cat coughing. If your cat is coughing do see your vet as coughing can be a sign of other disease – most commonly asthma. Over the years I have diagnosed numerous asthmatic cats in acute respiratory distress, whose owners had noted prior coughing but had delayed medical care because they attributed the coughing to hairballs.

Hairball “medications” are essentially petroleum jelly with various flavors to make it palatable to cats. I’ve yet to see a controlled study that petroleum jelly actually works to lubricate a hairball down the pipes, but there is a whole industry based on this idea. I think it would be pretty hard to come up with a controlled study on hairballs. I’m not opposed to a client trying them, but they may be more successful for a constipated kitty than a kitty vomiting hairballs. Regardless, be careful not to overdo the hairball medications as giving it daily could potentially inhibit absorption of vitamins. The hairball foods are high fiber diets that theoretically could push a hairball through the GI tract.

One way to help decrease hairballs is to groom your cat! If you comb your cat regularly you will decrease the amount of fur potentially ingested by your cat when your cat grooms. I often say that cats are vain, that they like to look good. If I have a sick cat in the hospital, I will often groom the kitty (as the patient allows) so that the kitty feels better. Not only will your combing your cat (and putting the fur that accumulates on the comb in the trash) help decrease hairballs, it will mean less vacuuming and less hair on your clothes as you head out the door! Try a variety of brushes – from a comb to a brush to a FURminator – to see which your cat prefers. For most, it will be a good bonding moment with their cat. Not all cats are fond of their humans helping them out in the grooming department, so for these cats a favorite treat might be given during the process as a bribe.

If you have seen your vet to rule out underlying disease, tried hairball “medications” and high fiber foods and your cat is acting just fine yet you are living with frequent hairballs, you might even consider giving your sweetie a lion cut. That’s when a groomer or vet clips the hair on the body very closely but leaves the head, mane, feet and tail tip furry. I’ve known cats who feel downright frisky after a lion cut.

If there seems to be frequent hairball episodes in your home, consult your veterinarian. As a veterinarian, a report of an occasional hairball doesn’t get me excited. However, repeat hairballs may be a sign of an unhealthy GI tract such as from inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies, a GI motility issue or even cancer. Sometimes clients say the cat has hairballs when they really simply mean the cat vomits frequently. If it truly is a hairball issue, your vet will also look for evidence of allergies or fleas that may be causing your cat to over groom from itchiness which may be accompanied by loss of hair. If you pet is getting skinnier or not acting well, there may be an underlying GI or metabolic issue.

NOTE: Consult your Veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.

About the Author: Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida. Connect with Dr. Joi on LinkedIn

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