Why frequent hairballs may be a red flag

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

hairballs in cats

Story at-a-glance

  • Hairballs in housecats are common but shouldn’t be considered “normal” — a kitty who routinely produces them should be seen by a veterinarian to determine the cause
  • If an underlying disease process is ruled out, chances are your cat is simply ingesting too much hair for some reason or is eating a dry diet
  • Otherwise healthy cats with hairballs need a moisture-rich diet, added fiber, digestive enzymes and other supplements as appropriate
  • Additional tips: a petroleum-free hairball remedy or a dab of coconut oil on kitty’s paw; brushing or combing your cat to help remove hair and debris

If you’re owned by a cat (or more than one), chances are you’re familiar with hairballs — those gooey little piles of ick often discovered with bare feet in the middle of the night.

Hairballs are hard to miss, but if you’ve never seen one, they’re actually more of a cylindrical shape than a ball, tend to be slimy or phlegm-covered, and are usually the same color as the furry creature who left them for you. From a distance, or if it’s dried out, a hairball may look like poop, but on closer inspection it’s usually fairly easy to tell a hairball from a misplaced litterbox deposit.

Frequent hairballs are a red flag

Unfortunately, many cat parents and too many veterinarians assume that vomiting hairballs regularly is a normal part of being feline. They rationalize that because kitties groom themselves frequently and ingest fur in the process, it’s natural for them to produce hairballs (scientific name, trichobezoars).

While hairballs in housecats are very common, you may be surprised to learn they aren't a normal part of a feline's digestive process. Your cat's digestive tract is built to handle a certain amount of fur — the fur she pulls off herself during grooming, as well as the hair attached to prey in the wild.

But indoor-only cats in particular develop hairballs due to hair length, shedding patterns (spring is often hairball season for cats whose coats thin out as the weather warms up), excessive grooming (of themselves or other cats in the household), deficiencies in the diet, digestive dysfunction or a combination of issues.

When one or more of these situations occurs, the hair your kitty has ingested forms a mass in her stomach that can't pass easily into the intestines. Her body knows it must rid itself of the foreign object, which is why hairballs are often thrown up rather than deposited in the litterbox.

How and why cats develop hairballs

Most cases of hairballs are the result of one or more of the following: too much ingested hair, a moisture-deficient diet (or other issues with biologically inappropriate foods) or a problem in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Long-haired cats tend to have more hairball issues than kitties with shorter coats simply because they have more hair.

Skin conditions caused by allergies, infections or parasites can cause excessive shedding or over-grooming. Excessive grooming, also called psychogenic alopecia, is a compulsive disorder in cats that can result in tremendous quantities of ingested hair.

Cats on dry food diets aren't getting nearly the moisture their organs need to function properly. And unlike dogs, kitties don't make up the deficiency by drinking lots of water. A GI tract that is moisture-depleted is less able to transport a hairball than the digestive tract of a well-hydrated cat eating a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet.

Cats consuming feed-grade (not human-grade) diets are ingesting poor-quality ingredients that have been rendered and processed at extremely high temperatures, which dramatically impacts nutrient value. Digestibility of poor-quality proteins used in “pet feed” is not measured, nor are the levels of toxic byproducts (such as advanced glycation end products or heterocyclic amines), pesticides (glyphosate), or genetically modified ingredients, all which have been linked to impaired gut health and microbiome imbalances.

A digestive tract compromised by an inflammatory condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), parasites, foreign objects, cancer or another serious disorder may not be able to process even normal amounts of hair. A chronic hairball problem should be investigated by your veterinarian, since there could be an underlying disease requiring treatment.

Once in a great while a hairball can grow large enough to be life-threatening and require surgical removal. If you're not seeing hairballs but your cat is exhibiting all the usual hairball-related noises and behaviors, you should get her to your vet right away, as it's possible a hairball has grown too big to be regurgitated or passed through the GI tract.

It could also be a non-hairball related but serious condition like feline asthma. If your cat vomits frequently, stops eating, loses weight or shows other symptoms of being ill or in pain, it's also time to get her to the vet.

Recommendations to help reduce hairballs

  1. Feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, moisture-rich diet made with excellent quality raw ingredients. If your cat is eating exclusively dry food and you can't or aren't willing to switch to a different diet, I recommend adding bone broth to the kibble.
  2. Add a fiber source to your cat's meals. Mix the contents of a capsule of psyllium seed husk powder with a tablespoon of water and stir it into the food, add a pinch of coconut fiber to each meal or try a teaspoon of 100% canned pumpkin or freshly cooked mashed pumpkin.
  3. Add a high-quality digestive enzyme to your cat's diet. Cats in the wild consume raw food, which contains natural enzymes not found in highly processed, commercial “cat food.”
  4. Add an omega-3 supplement such as krill oil. Sufficient omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can help improve the condition of your cat’s skin and fur, as well as the ability of his digestive system to manage the hair and debris he swallows while grooming himself.
  5. Brush or comb your cat. Set a goal of five minutes a day with a long-haired cat and three to four times a week for a kitty with short hair. You should notice a very quick improvement in the hairball situation, and regular brushing or combing will also help improve the condition of your pet's skin by removing debris and dead cells.
  6. Never use petroleum jelly or mineral oil for hairballs. If you must use medication to assist with the passage of hair, use a petroleum-free hairball remedy (look for an all-natural product made with slippery elm, marshmallow or papaya) or a dab of coconut oil on your cat’s front paw or near her bowl. I also recommend fiber and coconut oil together. Kibble-fed cats, in particular, need additional GI lubrication to help ingested hair pass through the digestive tract.

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