Many cat parents have had the delightful experience of stepping out of a warm bed onto a cold, squishy, slimy hairball. The good news is that hairballs are entirely normal and nothing to worry about, so long as they don’t occur more than once or twice a week.
If they occur more than that or your cat retches and vomits without eventually producing a hairball, definitely talk to your veterinarian about it. In this article, we’ll discuss what causes cat hairballs and the best way to minimize them.
What Causes Cat Hairballs?
When your cat grooms himself, tiny hook-like structures on his tongue —called papillae—catch loose and dead hair, which is then swallowed. The majority of this hair passes all the way through the digestive track with no problems and ends up in the litter box. But some of the hair can remain in the stomach or esophagus, gradually accumulating into a wet clump which becomes a hairball. The hairball can irritate the lining of the stomach, and ultimately your cat will vomit to get rid of it.
Because hairballs pass through the narrow esophagus on the way out, they usually appear thin and tubelike, rather than round. Hairballs occur more often with older cats versus kittens or young cats because they spend less of their time licking their coats. Some cats simply groom more often than others, making them more likely to have hairballs. Cats with long hair, like Persians and Maine Coons, are more prone to hairballs as a result of having more hair to ingest than short-haired breeds.
3 Ways to Reduce Cat Hairballs
Unfortunately, you can’t completely prevent hairballs in cats. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the frequency of hairballs as well as the likelihood that your cat will get them.
1. Regular Cat Grooming
The more fur you remove from your cat’s coat, the less fur that ends up in his stomach. If possible, comb or brush your cat on a daily basis. It’s good for your cat’s health and a good opportunity for the two of you to bond. A slicker brush or a fine-toothed comb such as a flea comb works well. Just make sure that your grooming tool is removing the dead fur underneath the coat and not just glossing over the surface.
Many cat owners find that the FURminator deShedding Tool does a good job doing this. If you have a long-haired cat that refuses to be brushed, consider taking him to a professional groomer for a “lion-cut” once or twice a year. In addition to brushing your cat, there are shampoos and wet wipes on the market made to minimize shedding and ideally, result in fewer hairballs. You might want to first run these by your veterinarian to make sure they are suitable for your cat.
2. Special Diet
You can try feeding your cat a specialized “hairball formula” cat food. These high-fiber formulas are designed to improve the health of your cat’s coat, minimize the amount of shedding, and encourage hairballs to pass through the digestive system. You can also ask your veterinarian for a prescription diet or food additives that might help manage hairballs.
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3. Commercial Hairball Remedy Products
The most common of these products contains flavored petroleum jelly in addition to other active and inactive ingredients. These hairball remedy gels physically coat or lubricate the hair ingested during your cat’s routine grooming to encourage passage into the intestine. Some of these products contain a mild laxative to help make the hair easier to pass in the stool.
It’s worth noting that an excess of hair in the stool can cause constipation. Talk to your veterinarian about the proper dosage of any hairball remedies that you try. An effective way to apply petroleum jelly is to put it into a syringe and squirt it into your cat’s mouth. Do not put it on your cat’s paw, as it will end up a greasy mess on your walls and your cat will not ingest enough to be helpful.
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