Hairballs are often the topic of jokes and cartoons, but there is nothing funny about a cat who gets frequent hairballs. 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 also 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. Daily, or even weekly, vomiting as a method to eliminate hairballs is almost always an indicator that there is something else going on.

What can a cat guardian 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. “Every day, there’s more scientific evidence that these “mere” hairballs we see so often may respond, not to grease and not to fiber, not to brushing and not to shaving, but to feeding a diet that looks like what a cat was evolved to eat,” says feline veterinarian Fern Crist, DVM, a former board member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

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? Most definitely not, says Dr. 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 two of 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.

Amber and Buckley both had hairball problems until I transitioned them to a grain-free canned diet. While it didn’t completely eliminate hairballs for them, they became very very rare.

Allegra and Ruby are my first completely raw-fed cats – and neither of them has ever had a hairball. They also barely shed. They have the shiniest coat of all of my cats. I brush both of them every day because they like 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.

The next time someone tells you that species-inappropriate diets high in fiber, malt-flavored grease, and regular brushing are the only ways to help prevent hairballs, think again. “Hairballs may be more than just a stinky mess for you to clean up,” says Dr. Crist. “They might well be a sign that your cat has a real health problem, and should see the veterinarian. And your cat might be telling you that her gut would be happier with “mouse” than with breakfast cereal.”

Photo by Rennett Stowe, Flickr Creative Commons

25 Comments on When Hairballs Are More Than Just Hairballs

  1. My Chomplet was transitioned off dry food and canned food to Primal Chicken & Salmon over a year ago. I found your site while researching the issue we are having with hairballs. Consistently for months now, we have been issues with getting 1-5 hairballs puked up on a weekly basis or so. I wish I was tracking the pattern better, but am not always the one finding and cleaning these. Really worried, and highly dislike all the vets I have tried in Silicon Valley so far (do not trust any), so pondering whether I can start with switching to a different food to see if this improves or if it’s highly likely something much worse is going on. There have not been changes in behavior or any significant weight loss. Weight loss only occurred initially when she switched foods. The only other significant change was that she decreased water intake to next to none since switching foods. The only time she asks for water (refuses to use her water fountain now) from the faucet is after having Greenies treats. Would appreciate any thoughts!

    • If your cat vomits up hairballs that frequently, there may be something else going on, Kate. I would continue to try to find a vet you like and get some diagnostics done.

  2. Solution os simple. Fish oil. My long haired girl, who refuses me to brush her tummy, gets hairballs often. She won’t do canned cat food. Will do Tuna JUICE we call it. Water or oil packed. But that gets spendy. I tale FishOil capsules for Cholesterol control. Sje lets me know she needs oil by entering the kitchen. I am bad at taking as often (daily) as should. I keep in freezer. Holds the fishy stink away. And doesnt give me heartburn. I warm up one capsule by rolling between hands, and cut slit in tip, squeeze out oil in shallow itty plate. She takes forever to get it down and leaves some for later, or her brother. She wont tell me which. She tends to do okay if I. Diligent and give it to her upon request a couple days in row. Or whatever it takes. She shows a hairball is present by sleeping more and not being social or wanting out for a while. Its Cod Live Oil btw, from Pharmacy, Nature Made brand is what I take. I not condoning nor promoting just sharing my experience as a layperson who loves her princess.

  3. My fluffy boy is nearly 4. We bought a furminator (a quarter of the vets price, from amazon) to cut down on his furballs. He gets some quite horrendous ones, every few weeks (more often in the summer)and usually aims for centre mass of the beige carpet! They feel like a rubber sausage through the tissues – poor cat! Sometimes we just get a catfood liquid with grass and no furball (may do it in the garden). He is currently spoilt on Gourmet sachets (can now show my husband, with glee, why we don’t buy the cheaper brands – padded with grain, I am sure) and also he loves the Purina One crunchies (dry for cleaning his teeth, me believes). However, I suspect they have cereal, so am thinking of getting rid. (Anyone know of a cereal free dry food?) I have from time to time tried my fuss-pot with any number of fresh cooked roasts or fish, but unless it comes out of that Gourmet Sachet, he won’t touch it! He is one of the few that can’t smell catnip, so wondered if cooked meat doesn’t get through his olfactories! I do so hope when I look at the ‘raw’ link, I haven’t got to give him literally raw meat – how would I be able to kiss his little face ever again! p.s. the mention of ball-pointed scissors is a fantastic idea, I just use small scissors to give my boy a ‘fluffy-butt-cut), hoping I don’t catch him!

    • I would encourage you to wean your cat off dry food, Alison. The myth that dry food cleans teeth just won’t die. Actually, the opposite is true: Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough 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 chewing, but in my years at veterinary practices, I’ve seen 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. More reasons why cats shouldn’t eat dry food:

  4. I actually feed my cats indoor formual dry cat food and tuna every day. They’re all short-haired, and they’re brushed only rarely. I’m not really sure why, but they hardly ever get hairballs. Once every month or few months maybe. Maybe it’s the tuna?

  5. Poor Cee CEe developed Kitty Dredlocks on her bloomers, belly, chest and sides this winter– it took me forever it seemed, to carefully clip them off (she as not too happy about this– on the other hand, Big Bad Baby Twinkle of Fearsome Fame — would have purred all thru this, but she NEVER gets Dreds — go figure). But I persisted and over the space of several days, i finally got the final one off. Now i DO brush Cee Ce (and BBBT) every day but Cee Cee is VERY long haired — and SHE even helped me by chewing some Dreds off and leaving them on her favorite perches — and I DID give her Hairball gel (which she LOOOVES) every day. But I worried that Cee Cee would get impaction and so I kept using those safety (ball-ended) scissors on her and FINALLY — achieved victory. She is now Dred-free.

  6. Finally someone who agrees that a raw food diet eliminates the vomiting of hairballs. I have two long haired cats who were raised on a combination of dry and canned foods by their breeders. One was a year old when she came to live with me and the other three. Both were difficult to transition to raw food, though now one eats raw exclusivly, and the other a quality no grain canned, and we are working on the raw. Before eliminating the dry and while eating canned foods which contained grains one of the girls vomited hairballs nightly. On raw the other has never had a hairball in the two years that I have been feeding her raw. Sometimes getting a cat who was a junk food junkie to eat raw is difficult, but the difference in their coat, health and stools is worth what ever it takes to convince them that it is what they should be eating. I feed four ferals who show up for breakfast and dinner, feeding all six cats a home made raw diet costs less than what I was paying for dry food, and everyone is healthy.

    • I love hearing feedback like this, Merrily. It’s pretty amazing how much of a difference just taking the gain out of their diet makes, isn’t it?

  7. Gracey has not had a hairball issue. She is a domestic short hair and her coat is healthy. When I use the FURminator on her, it is the same for me, I only get a tiny bit of hair too. Thanks for this great post Ingrid.

  8. Very informative post that every cat owner should read! Of my three, two rarely get hairballs and one gets them less than once a month. I see now I should be shooting for “never”
    for all three!

  9. THANK YOU Ingrid for this most useful (I dare sare vital) post!!!! It made a light bulb go off for me too!

    This is for Allegra and Ruby, from Zoe:
    Thank you dear Allegra and Ruby for joining my Kitty Party!!!! I’m so happy to meet you in person! You can see your lovely selves having fun with other sweet kitties from around the world on my Mom’s blog!

  10. You said that Allegra and ruby are raw fed cats…… What exactly does a raw fed diet consist of? I have a cat that had occasional issues with hair balls and was just curious.

    • Erin, please refer to the links I posted for Cathy in the comment above. If you have more questions after reading through them, I’ll be happy to answer them.

  11. You know, it’s odd that I’ve never heard this before, but it makes total sense. It’s also making me wonder about my cats. I have three and at various times I’ve heard all three of them doing the “hacking” that comes with hairballs, even if they don’t end leaving me to clean the carpet.

    I’ve been through several dry foods (one of them turns her nose up at wet and it’s easier to feed them all the same) trying to find the combination that they will: 1. all eat, 2. help them loose weight, and 3. prevent problems in the box.

    Of course, the cat food companies will tell you that not only does it help digestion, but their food helps with weight and keeping their teeth clean. All things I want, but if a totally different diet does the same things and more, plus is healthier, I’m certainly interested.

    Does a raw diet help with weight and digestion? Does it keep them more even when it comes to appetite? How do you figure out how much to give them?

    Sorry for all the questions; this post just made a big light bulb go off in my head. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.