Remedies for Hairballs

If you have a cat, you’ve likely come across a hairball in your home on at least one occasion. You may have woken up early in the morning to hearing your cat coughing one up. Whether you’ve seen it or stepped in it first, these gooey masses are anything but pleasant. 

Cats clean themselves frequently. Their rough tongues remove dirt, debris, and loose fur, which they then swallow. Typically, the hair passes through the stomach and digestive system without a problem. If a large amount gets stuck, however, your cat can throw it up, producing a hairball. 

The occasional hairball generally isn’t a cause for concern, and it doesn’t indicate a serious problem. It’s a by-product of a natural process. However, while rare, hairballs can present dangers if the clump of fur in the cat’s stomach becomes too large to pass or gets lodged in their digestive tract. 

Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to help minimize hairball occurrence in cats.

Remedies for Hairballs in Cats

While hairballs aren’t typically dangerous, they’re not pleasant for your cat to cough up. It’s also not enjoyable for you as the owner to hear your cat go through the experience. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to help prevent hairballs or reduce their frequency. 

Brush Their Fur

Cats are excellent self-groomers. If your cat sheds a lot, however, they may swallow a lot of the loose fur, which increases the likelihood of a hairball. You can help to decrease the risk by brushing them periodically.

Ideally, you should brush your cat at least once or twice a week. If your cat has long hair, you may want to brush them more often. Some cats benefit from daily brushing. 

Some cats enjoy brushing, while others may not. If your cat falls into the second category, consider wearing grooming gloves instead of using a brush. With these pet-friendly gloves, your cat will feel like they’re being petted rather than brushed. If they’re resistant to brushing and petting, you could also consider shaving the hair down.

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Use Baby Wipes

After brushing your cat, wipe them with a fragrance-free, hypoallergenic baby wipe. Alternatively, you can use a damp paper towel. A moist cloth such as these helps to remove any remaining loose fur, which helps to reduce the amount that ends up in your cat’s stomach and reduces the risk of hairballs.

Add More Fiber

Just like humans, cats need fiber to maintain a healthy digestive tract. However, their needs are different from humans and other omnivores, as they typically don’t need plant fiber. Even so, adding some extra fiber to your cat’s diet can help to lower the risk of hairballs by helping to move things through their digestive system better. Some forms of fiber to add include:

Keep in mind that a cat’s fiber needs are much different from those of a human. You don’t want to add too much to their diet, or else your cat may experience some unpleasant side effects. If you’re unsure of how much to add, talk to your cat’s vet. 

Increase Water Intake

If your cat eats dry food, their diet likely isn’t providing enough water to meet their hydration needs. As such, their digestive system may not be able to function as well as it should. 

Offer your cat a clean, fresh water source. Many felines prefer running water to still, and they may not like the smell or taste of tap water. You might consider getting your cat a water fountain to get them to drink more. Canned food may also provide enough hydration to help keep the digestive system moving properly, reducing the risk of hairballs. 

Lubricate the Digestive Tract

Incorporating oil into your cat’s diet can help to lubricate the digestive tract, making it easier for hair to pass through naturally. Add a teaspoon of olive oil or melted butter to your cat’s food once a week. Provide your cat with a small amount of canned tuna or sardines occasionally. 

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Another effective option is to dip your cat’s paw into some petroleum jelly. They’ll lick it off, and the jelly will line the digestive tract to help the hair pass through their system. There are also petroleum-based remedies available that you can periodically feed your cat. 

Try Cat Food Formulated for Hairballs

If your cat coughs up hairballs regularly, you might consider switching to a diet specifically formulated to help reduce the issue. Many cat food brands have a product to deal with hairballs. The formulas typically include things such as increased fiber, oil, minerals, and vitamins that can help the swallowed hair pass through the digestive system naturally. 

When to See a Vet

While you might not need to worry about the occasional hairball, there are some instances in which you should see your vet. It’s rare, but hairballs can grow so large that your cat can’t pass them, or they can get lodged in the digestive tract, creating a blockage. If the hairball is too large, surgery may be required to remove it.

You should see your vet right away if your cat:

  • Tries to vomit but can’t get anything out
  • Is coughing frequently
  • Is having trouble defecating (pooping) 
  • Has diarrhea 
  • Has a bloated, hard abdomen
  • Becomes lethargic (tired)
  • Loses their appetite or won’t drink 
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on November 17, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

AnimalPath.org: "Shaving Cats Pros and Cons."

ASPCA: “Cat Grooming Tips.”

Cat Health: “Giving Your Cat Clean and Fresh Water.”

Cat Health: “Should You Get Your Cat a Water Fountain?”

Cornell Feline Health Center: “The Dangers of Hairballs.”

Cornell Feline Health Center: “A Hairy Dilemma.”

Feline Nutrition Foundation: “Answers: Do Cats Need Dietary Fiber?”

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