There’s No Such Thing As “Just a Hairball”

Feebee on window perch

Most cat owners accept that hairballs are just a normal part of life with cats.  While the occasional, isolated hairball may be nothing to worry about, there really is no such thing as “just a hairball.”

What is a hairball?

Traditionally it has been thought that hairballs develop because of how cats groom themselves. As cats lick their fur, the tongue’s tiny barbs pull off excess hair. Inevitably, some hair gets swallowed in the process. Ideally, it passes through the body and ends up in stools, but hairballs form when hair wads up in the stomach instead.

However, more recent findings show that hairballs form because the affected cat’s intestinal motility (the movement of food content from the stomach to the intestines) is impaired, something that most commonly occurs secondary to inflammatory bowel disease, which in turn is caused in almost epidemic proportions by grain-based diets and their adverse effect on the gut flora. Gut flora is the collection of microscopic organisms that live within the intestinal system. Predominantly made up of healthy bacteria, it carries out many important functions for the cat’s health, such as the absorption of nutrients, support for the immune system, and the ability to fight disease-causing organisms.

A healthy cat with a healthy gut system should be able to eliminate hair ingested through grooming in her stool. Vomiting as a daily, or even weekly, method to eliminate hairballs is almost always an indicator that there is something else going on. Take your cat to the veterinarian for a good check up.

What can a cat owner do to eliminate hairballs?

Regular brushing or combing to get rid of loose hair before your cat ingests it certainly helps. But even more importantly, there seems to be a strong connection between diet and hairballs. More and more evidence points to a grain-free canned or raw diet as the answer to hairball problems. Cats are obligate carnivores, and their digestive systems are not designed to digest grains and carbs well.

What about diets marketed as hairball diets? These diets are high in fiber, and the theory behind them is that the fiber helps propel the hair through the digestive system. However, the opposite seems to happen in many cats, and the unnaturally high fiber levels contribute to impaired intestinal motility and actually lead to more vomiting. Since impaired intestinal motility is often a precursor to IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and intestinal lymphoma, a grain-free diet seems to be a much better way to go.

What about hairball remedies such as Petromalt or Laxatone? These products are petroleum based, and petroleum is derived from crude oil. Does this really belong inside a cat’s stomach? Says feline veterinarian Dr. Fern Crist: “A cat is not a car.  And in no way could a cat have naturally evolved to require the dosing with ‘lubricants’ to survive or to thrive. Feeding a cat something wildly different from the diet it has evolved on is more likely to result in harm than in good.”

My own personal experience with cats and hairballs goes all the way back to Feebee, my first cat. I didn’t know any better back then, so he grew up on a vet-recommended commercial diet, and he ate mostly dry food. He coughed up hairballs at least a couple of times a week, despite frequent brushing and regular dosing with Laxatone. He also developed all the classic feline diseases now associated with dry food and foods high in carbohydrates: urinary bladder stones, and later, IBD and intestinal lymphoma, which eventually took his life at age 16 in April of 2000.

When I adopted Amber three months after he died, I transitioned her from the vet-recommended dry food with the occasional canned grocery store brand canned food that she was fed at the clinic to a quality natural, protein-based grain-free canned diet. She didn’t have a lot of problems with hairballs even prior to the diet change, but after the change, she never had a hairball again.

Buckley had a major hairball problem while she was my office cat. She, too, was being fed the standard clinic diet of dry food with occasional canned food. When I took her home, she ate the same grain-free canned food Amber ate, and her hairballs virtually disappeared.

Allegra is my first raw-fed kitty. She has never had a hairball in the year she’s been with me. She also doesn’t shed. I’ve always brushed all my cats daily, but I’ve never had a cat who doesn’t shed. She also has the shiniest coat of all of my cats. I brush Allegra every day because she likes it, but the amount of hair I pull out of the brush after each session, compressed into a ball, is smaller than the size of my thumbnail.

Are hairballs a problem for your cat?

Today is National Hairball Awareness Day, which is sponsored by Furminator, Inc., and to mark the occasion, they have generously offered a Furminator Deshedding Tool for Cats to go to one lucky reader. Come back tomorrow to enter our giveaway!

Photo: Feebee.

You may also enjoy reading:

Some startling new thoughts on cats and hairballs

Inflammatory bowel disease and diet

29 Comments on There’s No Such Thing As “Just a Hairball”

  1. Jenifer C
    June 4, 2015 at 11:02 am (2 years ago)

    Hello,

    I have found your blog so informing!! I was wondering what raw diet you feed Allegra? We are transitioning to a raw diet, and I am unsure of if there is a better raw choice with regards to brands and the state of the raw food (frozen, refrigerated, or dehydrated).

    Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Jenifer C
    June 3, 2015 at 7:15 am (2 years ago)

    Hello, not sure if anyone still monitors this conversation, but i had a couple of questions.
    We recently adopted a 3 year old long haired cat and she vomits when we give her treats, and about 2-3x a week. At first we thought it was a hairball issue (and her vet assured us it may be and that she’s unable to actually get the hairball up) because sometimes it’s food, and sometimes it’s liquid. She just went in for blood and stool checkup, and everything is good.

    My questions are:
    1. what brands of raw food are good for them?
    2. what percent of veggies is acceptable in raw food? (I was looking at nature’s variety instinct raw cat food and it contains 5% veggies)
    3. are there better organic raw or grain-free wet foods? I’m looking at so many and I’m not sure what’s best.
    4. what do I not want to see on a label?

    I want to feed her the best diet possible. Thanks in advance for any and all help!
    -Jenifer

    Reply
  3. Mana
    August 13, 2013 at 11:33 pm (4 years ago)

    I’ve been wondering about this. My two cats never get hairballs. I seriously never saw one until I cat-sat for a neighbor. So I googled it and found your post. My cats eat a combination of raw and high quality wet food like nature’s variety lamb and duck. One of the cats seems to do better on a diet free of chicken and beef, so it’s usually duck or lamb. They are fit and muscular like little athletes and no hairballs. How curious…

    Reply
  4. Debb
    July 27, 2013 at 5:50 pm (4 years ago)

    Just found your informative site and this about hairballs. We feed a mix of dry (didn’t know it was so bad!) and occasional wet food. One of our two kitties is really starting to cough up hairballs more & more it seems & the other has only an occasional hairball.

    Read the above recommendations and will try grain-free food for her. We currently give some Purina Pro Plan wet food to our other male kitty for urinary problems…so would switching them both to grain free & better wet food work for both of them? So guess there isn’t any dry food that is good for the kitties? Both raised on it. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      July 28, 2013 at 8:09 am (4 years ago)

      I would switch both of your cats to a quality grain-free canned food, Debb. Dry food just isn’t good for cats – not even the grain-free varieties – especially for cats with urinary issues.

      Reply
  5. Sherry
    October 18, 2012 at 5:10 am (5 years ago)

    When I went googling for cats that have frequently hairballs I was pretty much expecting to find what you posted … that IBD or another disease process could be the culprit. The thing is, earlier this year we spent over $2k on vet visits when our 13 year old cat became suddenly and mysteriously ill, vomiting all food and then refusing to eat. While the vet could not find a single thing actually wrong with her, we couldn’t buy it. We got her on 1 specific natural supplement that we mixed with canned food and syringe fed her for 3 weeks until she gained her appetite back. The vet was to the point of recommending we put her down but we didn’t give up on her. She bounced back, lost a bunch of weight (she was 16.25lbs because we ignorantly were feeding her what we thought was organic food … but it was dry and filled with grain) and became more energetic all around. She once again “begs” us for food but we’ve switched to the non-grain canned food. Everything was going great and she would still occasionally vomit (she has her whole life) but recently she’s starting vomiting these hair balls (actually they’re more like hair logs) several times a week. We’ve tried giving her cooked pumpkin but she won’t eat it. I know this is already mega comment post but maybe others out there can weigh in or it might help someone else with a similar situation. We really don’t want to take her to vet again after running thousands of dollars worth of tests back in May that all came up with “nothing wrong”. We just want to keep her healthy and happy for as long as she wants to stick around with us.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      October 18, 2012 at 6:30 am (5 years ago)

      The fact that she’s vomiting these hairballs several times a week is definitely a concern, Sherry. I would recommend a vet visit just to be on the safe side. At a minimum, a blood chemistry and blood count may provide some answers. If you’re not already giving a probiotic with your kitty’s food, I would add that, and maybe some digestive enzymes, and see if that helps. You could also try switching brands of the grain-free canned food, or move to a raw diet.

      Reply
  6. Jan
    September 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm (5 years ago)

    I’m pleased to find your article, which confirms what I’ve witnessed lately in my outdoor, semi-feral B&W, Little Mama (not too inventive with names–she nursed the two litters she was permitted to have until past their 6th months). She’s now 11 and for years it was hack-hack, gack-gack. Gets wearing and it must have been worse for her. I used an excellent product which she enjoyed, but I had to give it to her every 3 or 4 days, or . . . well, you know.
    Then, can’t recall why now, but I switched her from dry to wet food and the gagging just went away. I didn’t know why it made a difference until your article. Wet is more expensive, but neither do I have to buy the remedy any more, so I figure it evens out. And when I read what future problems we are probably delivered from, it’s well worth it. Come to think of it, that may be why our dog died of a tumor years back, who also was fed dry food containing grains. And the vet DID NOT GIVE US this information, even when I inquired. Thank you so much for your informative article–though I am startled to read there are grains even in the wet food.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 4, 2012 at 6:21 am (5 years ago)

      There are a lot of grain-free diets on the market now, Jan, but you’ll still need to read labels. Since protein is more expensive than grain and as more petfood manufacturers are coming out with grain-free foods, some are cutting corners by replacing the grain with carbs from vegetables.

      Reply
  7. Denise
    February 7, 2012 at 2:02 am (5 years ago)

    My cats have been eating Instinct and EVO dry, my Persian especially has a problem with hairballs. My other long hair is not feeling well, watery eye, sneezing, and just hawked up a huge hairball. My tabby has them once in awhile and she used to be 100% raw, until the Persian came along (who was raised on Purina kibble and wet food). I am going to switch to the grain free canned and try to get them all onto a raw diet. Thank you for all of the input!

    Reply
    • Amy Sikes
      February 7, 2012 at 11:14 am (5 years ago)

      Denise, just in case your watery-eyed, sneezy kitty might be suffering from the kitty herpes virus, you might want to consider getting some l-Lysine to add to his/her food (also available as treats, if that’s better). I recently started adding it to my kitty Casey’s food when it seemed like she was having a URI. Not only did it clear that up, but it cleared up her “goopy eyes”! She’s had black glop in the corners of her eyes for a really long time, and it just never occurred to me that it was anything other than her being a sensitive kitty (allergies and gluten intolerance). Of course, this has nothing to do with their food! Just thought I’d mention it, especially since I now feel terrible that my little one was probably uncomfortable for years when there was something very easy I could do to fix it! I ordered my Lysine powder and treats from Amazon.

      Reply
  8. VT
    December 12, 2011 at 3:00 pm (6 years ago)

    We started our cats on a raw food diet 4 years ago. Since then, we have seen no more than 1-3 hairballs per year. Hairballs used to be a monthly occurrence when we had our cats on a dry and wet food diet. We’re been really happy to see how much healthier they have been since we switched them over to raw food.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm (6 years ago)

      That’s been my experience, too, VT. Once I started my cats on a raw diet, hairballs have been a thing of the past.

      Reply
  9. Ingrid
    August 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm (6 years ago)

    Addie left the following comment, that, for some reason, appears to have been eaten by the computer gremlins. It’s a question that comes up frequently, so I wanted to be sure to address it.

    Addie wrote: “Do you find that there is a deterioration in dental health on a wet-only diet? All my cats have good teeth, but my parent’s cat (who has some big hairball issues) has teeth issues (maybe from stomach acid?) and the dry food is supposed to help eliminate some tartar buildup.”

    Addie, the myth that dry food helps clean cats’ teeth is one of the most persistent beliefs when it comes to pet food, and it is simply not true. Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough, if at all, for any of the scraping action that is the theory behind this myth to kick in. What little they do chew shatters into small pieces.

    Some pet food manufacturers offer a “dental diet” that is made up of larger than normal sized kibble to encourage the chewing longer, but many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole. Additionally, dry food leaves a carbohydrate residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages growth of tartar and plaque. And seriously, if it was true that dry kibble cleans teeth, wouldn’t human dentists recommend that we eat dry cereal to keep our teeth clean?

    Reply
  10. Esme
    May 1, 2011 at 2:12 pm (6 years ago)

    Ingrid I also want to mention-that if your cat is not coughing up a hairball-beware you cat may have asthma. Asthma attacks can mimic an attempt to get rid of an hairball. But ashtma is much more dangerous than a hairball and needs to be addressed.

    Reply
  11. Amy Sikes
    April 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm (6 years ago)

    For many, many years, I thought my cat Casey “just had a lot of hairballs”. She’s a medium haired cat, so I thought that just came with the territory. At one vet visit, I finally asked – rather timidly – if it was normal for her to be barfing pretty much all the time. The vet looked at me like I was insane and told me that of course it wasn’t normal! Then I found out that the “good food” I had been feeding her (based on a Consumer Reports article) was quite bad for her. The vet told me that Casey probably has some type of gluten intolerance, and that I should be feeding her Innova EVO. I went right out to the one store that sold it and started transitioning her immediately. It made a HUGE difference! She does still throw up some, but that’s probably from her CRF and partly from the grained wet food I feed them. (They generally don’t seem to like grain-free wet food, for some reason.)

    I have to get EVO through the mail now, and I mix it with Blue Wilderness to make it go farther, but I know that feeding my cats a grain-free dry food is what they need. I’d really like to get them on a raw diet, but I’m bad at remember to thaw the medallions for them. 🙁 Also, it seems to be counter-indicated for CRF cats.

    Thanks again for writing such great cat-care articles!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 29, 2011 at 3:59 pm (6 years ago)

      Amy, I’m so glad that your vet recommended the Innova EVO and that it made such a difference. You may want to try some other grain-free brands to see if she likes those better, it might eliminate more of the remaining vomiting.

      You can feed raw food to CRF cats, but you should only do that after consulting with a veterinarian who is familiar with raw feeding and can help you formulate the correct diet.

      Reply
  12. Katrina Kittle
    April 29, 2011 at 8:21 am (6 years ago)

    Thank you so much for this!!! I really needed to read this. Can you recommend brand names of grain-free canned food? Do they actually say “grain free” on them?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 29, 2011 at 8:42 am (6 years ago)

      Katrina, see my response to Lisa above for some grain-free canned food brands I like. Yes, these foods will all say “grain-free” on the label somewhere, but be aware that not all grain-free diets are created equal. As more pet food manufacturers are catching on that cats shouldn’t eat carbs (grains), more have jumped on the grain-free bandwagon. Unfortunately, some are cutting corners and substituting grains with other carbohydrates such as peas, sweet potatoes, etc., since protein is more expensive than carbs. It’s always a good idea to read labels. High quality protein should be the first ingredient (no meat by-products).

      Reply
  13. Lisa
    April 29, 2011 at 7:03 am (6 years ago)

    Out of curiosity, what is recommended for diet then? Are there any “brand” names to look for? I have been feeding mine Iams digestive care as well as canned food daily. 5 out of the 6 are long-haired and the other short and range in age from 9-12 yrs of age. The 12 yr old does not tolerate food changes well, the others are fine when I do change food.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 29, 2011 at 8:38 am (6 years ago)

      Lisa, I recommend grain-free canned or raw food for all cats. I don’t recommend feeding dry food to cats. Some brands I like are Wellness (not all flavors are grain-free, though, look for the yellow triangle with the words “grain-free” in it on the cans), Nature’s Variety Instinct, Weruva, and Innova EVO. Typically, when you switch to a grain-free diet, you’re not going to have any problems even if you don’t make a gradual switch, but when you have a cat with a known intolerance to food changes, I’d do the changeover gradually over a period of 5-10 days.

      Reply
      • Addie
        August 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm (6 years ago)

        Do you find that there is a deterioration in dental health on a wet-only diet? All my cats have good teeth, but my parent’s cat (who has some big hairball issues) has teeth issues (maybe from stomach acid?) and the dry food is supposed to help eliminate some tartar buildup.

        Reply

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