Today is National Hairball Awareness Day. The fact that someone decided it was a good idea to have a “holiday” named after hairballs is probably more of a marketing ploy to sell ineffective remedies and diets than anything else, but it’s also testament to the fact that hairballs are far too common in cats. And contrary to some of the information you may see around the web today, they are not a normal part of a cat’s digestive process.

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.

Hairballs are not normal

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.

The connection between hairballs and diet

There appears 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 inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and intestinal lymphoma, a grain-free diet seems to be a much better choice for prevention.

Other ways to prevent hairballs

Brush or comb  your cat regularly to get rid of loose hair before your cat ingests it while grooming. Most cats love to be brushed, and regular brushing can become part of your bonding time.

What about hairball remedies?

Hairball remedies such as Petromalt or Laxatone 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 personal experience with hairballs

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.

Photo by Austin White, Flickr Creative Commons

66 Comments on Hairballs Are Not Normal

  1. I’ve had my cat for nearly fours years now and zero hair balls. I told the vet this and his reaction indicated THAT is not normal. She does throw-up after eating too much grass. Can’t see how throwing-up hair balls from time to time is a big deal unless it’s really excessive.

  2. My Maine Coon always had problems with hairballs. He was on a prescription dry diet for urinary tract problems that he has had surgery for twice. His hairballs were frequent and obviously painful for him. It’s sad to say that it took his recent diagnosis of Stage II diabetes (from a high carbohydrate diet) to get him off of dry food. It was the turning point in his hairball issue. He is no longer on a dry kibble diet since early March and hasn’t had a hairball since. He was devoted to, and loved his dry kibble but Dr. orders that he be on a strict low-carb canned food diet and he’s doing so much better. Of course, I have to give him insulin injections twice a day, but he is now clear-eyed and playful again. My other cats are now on wet diet as well.

    • I’m glad your cat responded so well to the diet change. Some cats will go into remission and only need insulin for a brief period of time, hopefully, yours will be one of them!

      • Be really careful when changing to a low carb or raw diet and giving insulin at the same time. Your kitty could start to develop a lower need for insulin or even go into remission, as Ingrid is saying, and thus go hypoglycemic if still on the same insulin dose, which is VERY dangerous and could cause seizures, brain damage or death! To prevent this, get a diabetes blood monitor and teach yourself to do a curve test so you can periodically get an accurate reading of your kitty’s blood insulin levels, using a droplet of blood taken from your cat’s ear or paw pad. Trust me, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds, and it could save your sugarbaby’s life. is a great site with a huge wealth of advice for parents of cats with diabetes. Good luck!

        • Ingrid and Katie are correct. My 14 year old kitty, Flossie, was diagnosed with diabetes a few weeks after an injection of steroids. She was started on insulin. Although the vet didn’t tell me that I needed a meter (she just said that we would recheck her glucose levels in 3 weeks), I bought one anyway and started testing. Thank goodness that I did because at about week 3 of injections, she started acting really odd…shivering, meowing a lot…and I was concerned. I had switched her to a low carb canned food right after diagnosis. Apparently, this caused her to stop needing the insulin. After three days of lowering the insulin dose and she still went hypoglycemic on me, the vet said to stop giving the insulin. It’s been nearly 4 weeks now and she has not needed it. That doesn’t mean that she won’t in the future but, if I had continued with her regular dose of insulin and not checked her, it probably would have killed her. It was very surprising!

  3. My cat just started doing a weird hair ball act.. Please help his neck was stiff he put his claws out and went stiff and like his neck movement it was freaky, I’ve been worried about him for a bit.

  4. We are in a bit of a bind. We have 10 cats, but we cannot feed them an all-meat or meat and rice diet; not canned or dry because we have 1 male cat that develops urine crystals when we feed our cats the better quality diet. Unfortunately 6 of the rest of our cats vomit up hairballs and their food, 1 cat vomits daily. Our vet says he’s going to stop treating our male cat for crystals if we keep feeding him the diet that causes him to develop crystals (that’s the good quality diet). The urinary health diets all seem to have grains in them. What do we do?

  5. Ingrid, Which one of the wet or pre~mix raw would be the most cost effective and where to buy. I had no idea about this and do not want to cause the death of my cats!! They had been eating Organix by Castor and Pollux and that went up to over $100 for 14 lbs on Amazon so now they eat Purina One Beyond, just a few simple iingredients grain free DRY food!!

  6. My cat won’t eat dark meat. Just chicken breast. Not thighs, any other animals or any offal.
    I had her on a 100% wet diet and at the last vet visit I was told to change her to a dry diet otherwise she will have problems with her teeth. She won’t let you brush them! I have her on a 50/50 wet/dry diet now. The kibble has to be bought at the vets (surprise). I have recently seen her drinking her water – never seen that happen before. Never had a hairball though. There is so much conflicting advice re diets and I just end up pulling my hair out!

    • The myth that dry food cleans cats’ teeth just won’t die. If it were true, dentists would tell us to chew dry crackers! 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.

      • Thanks for the quick reply. I was feeling guilty about giving her dry food but the vet convinced me. Daisy is a fussy eater and changing her is a slow process – its taken 3 months to get to 50/50! I will start changing her back again, and might even give the raw diet another try.
        Thanks for all your help.

    • My cats have always had a dry food diet and at 16 years old neither of them has ever had any dental problems- the vets are always complimenting them on how good their teeth are for their age!

  7. Thanks for the article — it is very enlightening! I have a question… My cat Lily is 15 and was diagnosed with kidney disease a year ago. It was caught early and not far developed, so my vet put her on a prescription diet (Hill’s KD) for renal health long term. Her kidney issues drastically improved, but over the last year she has been coughing up more and more hair balls. Unlike most cats, she coughs and then swallows them. So she ends up coughing sometimes 3 times a day. We recently started grooming her more often, but she still coughs regularly.

    I am concerned now that her prescription diet for her kidney problems is causing a new intestinal problem. Any advice on what I should do about this?

    • As I mentioned in a comment above, the thinking on protein restriction for cats in kidney failure is changing. Protein restriction, the idea behind the k/d type diets, is usually not indicated until the final stages of the disease. I would work with a holistic veterinarian to find a diet that will maintain kidney health with better ingredients than these so-called prescription diets.

      Are you sure the coughing is hairballs and not asthma? It can be easy to confuse the two:

  8. Sounds great, now what brand are you using? What brands are grain free? I really don’t have the time or the money to start buying her raw meat for every meal, sorry.

  9. Thank you for all your questions! I love that so many of you are interested in learning about the best possible nutrition for their cats. I’m trying to answer as many of your questions as I can!

    If you can’t find what you’re looking for on this site, or in previous replies to comments, please note that I do offer individualized nutritional consultations:

  10. Just grain free wet can food? I do a mixture of both wet and dry grain free food. My cats don’t seem to like only wet food and ask for the dry food. They actually ignore the wet food and paw the bag of dried food. I have bought a variety of wet grain free food but they wont eat it. I have picky eaters.

  11. I heard of giving them a drop of olive oil in their food helps aid in digestion of hairballs ! and giving them a nice silky shinny coat as well !

  12. THANK YOU!!! THANK YOU!!THANK YoU!!! My 12 yr old rescues, that I’ve had since 4 wks old (littermates), have always had hairball issues. The male, George, much more than the female. I thought I was feeding the best I could afford with Hills Science dry food. I kept switching according to age. Recently, I made a new change and it’s been hairball city for my poor baby boy. he hates getting brushed and always bites me when I try. I keep trying though. I am going to try slowly transitioning them to wet food and get the best I can afford there with the list on the link referenced here. They’ve been on dry food since they were old enough to eat something other then formula. Now that they are 12, I notice aging signs. If switching their food will help either of them in any way, it is happening TODAY! The girl, DaisY, has been very thin her whole life. I’m hoping this will also help her gain some much needed weight. THANK YOU again for this awesome article. I too, believed the myths.

  13. I wish I had read this article 2 years ago. I had a dear, beautiful little long haired calico who died last fall about a month after surgery to remove a blockage. She had had surgery a year before that and we thought that would be it. She had low motility in her intestines. After the first surgery she was given regular doses of hairball relief.

    I’m so sad I didn’t know about this problem with diet. I’d still have my dear little Matilda. We were so close, I even took her to our beach vacations with us. She’d ride 10 hours in the car sitting on the back of my seat. She was only six.

  14. Hello,

    I have a rescue cat who has been on an all wet, grain-free diet for almost two years now, and only in the last couple of months has she started showing signs and symptoms of hair balls. She doesn’t throw them up, just chokes and heaves and swallows. The vet prescribed Laxotone and it seems to help, though I understand that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for her.

    I’m just curious–we have her on the correct diet, so what else could be causing this?


  15. This is very informative about hairballs and kitties. My Maine Coon, Honey Girl, was having hairball problems recently as she started excessive grooming after we had a very strong earthquake. I was brushing her every day, but to no avail. She is pre-diabetic and is eating a Hills Science Diet M/D canned food and Merrick no Grain dry food. She was so blocked up with fur that the vet had to give her an enema. She had a tube of fur come out. The vet said to buy a Furminator, which I use twice a week after brushing kitty. The difference is remarkable. Happy kitty, happy cat owner! Thank you for your great blog.

  16. What do you feed them in a raw diet. And what ratios do you use of those items?? How much is fed per day of the raw diet? My cat needs this but I am doing the transition slowly so I can find a formula that gives him all that he needs nutrient wise.

  17. Please comment the high protein Blue Buffalo or Eukanuba dry foods. We rarely feed wet food, more for a treat. My 6 yr old maine coon has a hairball maybe once a month.

  18. Thanks for article well written and informative, I am one that is a vegetarian, seriously refuses to eat meat (she buries it) as for the others they have been on a strictly grain free uti healthy food recommended by the vet.
    we wanted to try the raw diet however the vet said that she doesn’t recommend it because unlike human foods there are no expiration dates on many of the places that sell raw food and salmonella and other unhealthy bacteria are common in them. I see where some are making their own foods but rice is another grain?? But I will look into it more now that I see the health benefits in it.
    PS: I have 7 rescues, one has IBS and hairballs so I can see the link referred too by this article.

    • A vegetarian diet is not a complete diet for cats. Unfortunately, there is a wealth if misinformation about raw diets out there, and many veterinarians do not understand enough about raw feeding. There are plenty of safe, commercially prepared diets on the market. Most of the recent pet food recalls for salmonella contamination have been for dry food!

  19. I have spent time with a veterinary nutritionist and her consensus is that a mixture of dry and wet food with high protein is best. Do you only recommend canned food? I have a lot of friends that say canned food gives their cats (and dogs) diarrhea or at least softer or smellier stools. Is that a sign of a problem with the wet food? One of my cats is diabetic and I have him on a high protein/grain-free diet (dry and mostly canned) and ever since we switched his stools smell awful. They are sometimes wet and you can smell them throughout the house. Could this be caused by his diet? I have always fed traditionally a dry cat food because that is the norm and it is also a little more cost friendly. I try to use foods with a higher protein content for my cats since I know that’s what they need but I’m afraid to go too high with the grain free since I’ve read that a cats high protein diet is what ultimately causes kidney failure in most cats. That the high amounts of protein that they require is very taxing on their kidneys and leads to renal disease/failure in a large percentage of cats in old age. My mother-in-law had a cat with kidney failure and she had to try to give her supplements and fluids under her skin several times a week, I don’t want to have to do that. If I feed a higher protein diet will that potentially effect my cats health later? With raw diets do you recommend onesade at home or bought? My vet hates raw diets, says I run the risk of additional dangerous bacteria and a less than complete diet with it. She says there is a reason cats/dogs live longer as domestic pets vs the wild and part of that is the diet. I guess that makes sense but I just wanted to get your opinion. There is south new info out there on diets and I’m looking for all the info I can get.

    • I do not recommend any dry food for cats, Mel – see my reply to Dave above.

      I believe that a raw diet is the ultimate way to feed an obligate carnivore like the cat, the next best choice is a grain-free canned diet. Sadly, many veterinarians are not well-informed about raw feeding. You can find my recommendations here: Another great source of information on raw feeding is Dr. Lisa Pierson’s site,

      A high protein diet is not going to cause kidney failure. In fact, protein restriction in cats with kidney failure is not indicated until the very final stages of the disease. Here’s more information on kidney disease and diet:

    • One of the side effects of a high protein, grain-free diet is MUCH smaller, harder, less-smelly stools. Cats have amazingly efficient digestive systems if you feed them the food they were evolved to eat: that would not be kibble, but animal protein. If you cat is not actually ill, his smelly stools are most likely caused by dry food ingredients. Also check the ingredients in your canned food: I had your problem when I mistakenly tried Avoderm, not realizing that avocado is a toxic food for cats. The company says it’s fine, but I suddenly had four cats with a week of diarrhea after one feeding, and I beg to differ.

      Having spent my share of years feeding cats Hill’s Science kibble and watching each cat develop chronic renal failure and eventually die of it, I learned my lesson there, too. My cats get frozen raw, and 95% protein canned food with very basic ingredients (no fish, no beef, either). If you read the info Ingrid recommends and just use common sense, it all becomes very clear. Reading the ingredients on dry food bags, cans, etc., will then be very persuasive, too. Cats need water and pure animal protein — as close to the “whole mouse or bird” as you can comfortably get. They don’t need cereal or grain of ANY kind, and you really don’t want them eating anything that comes from a rendering plant, even if it’s referred to as “poultry meal,” or “meat.”

      In my vet’s opinion, cats are living longer because of vaccines and better vet care, not diet. Dry food diets do take cats into their teens, often — but inevitably with expensive medical care and sub-Q hydration and so forth. CRF and thyroid problems are diseases, not normal aging. I’m expecting my cats who are better fed to live healthily into their 20s, which is normal, I hear, for people who figured out the raw-food thing decades before I did.

  20. Do you know if this has been scientifically proven or is this based on personal experience? If there is any research, I would love to read it! Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • I’m not aware of any scientific research, Sam, but there is plenty of anecdotal experience from cat guardians and veterinarians to support this. The problem with scientific research, when it comes to feline nutrition, is that what little there is is funded by the big pet food companies. These same companies also control most of the nutritional curriculum in veterinary schools.

      • I agree with your comment about scientific studies being funded by food companies. I have a 17 year old DSH with mild liver and kidney issues, and 2 9-year old Maine Coons with bladder issues. They are all on prescription foods.

        I’ve read all the comments and your responses and I’m very impressed with your knowledge. I will definitely be reading all the links you provided here and following you from now on.

        Thank you!

  21. I did not know this, very important information!! Our 12 year old cat Indy have been throwing up every blue moon not a hairball but more like a hairtube….it’s like a long tube of of impacted hair with a little stomach vile. I comb and brush both our cats twice a month, they are shedding now and our other cat Lily does not cough up a hairball or hairtube like her brother, so I’m taking it is coming out in her stool. Now that you have shared this information I’m going to have to start grooming them more this time. Thank you!

  22. Ingrid a short question:
    I have been feeding my cats raw diet for over two years now- they eat whole ground rabbit (and i mean whole) & ground chicken (or duck or turkey- bones, meat and organs), but for the past couple of months one of my cats has been vomiting hairballs a few times a week. as they are on raw meat what could be the issue.

    he is a bit of a shedder (and it is shedding season) but i am now not fully convinced it is because of his hair. could this be related to the whole ground rabbit he eats? it is ground with the fur and all..

    i would love your opinion on the matter.

    • I suppose it’s possible that the additional fur from the rabbit in his diet could be overloading his system, but I really doubt that. More likely, it’s an issue with his gut motility. Are you adding a good probiotic/digestive enzyme supplement? I would try that to see if this will help improve things.

      • Hey Karia

        I buy it already ground. I purchase the kids food from Hare-Today.
        the prices are a bit expensive but cheaper than the store bought commercial raw food.

    • Rabbit, as a rule, is much higher in bone than other prey animals. Since you feed hare today’s ground rabbit, your cats could have a much higher bone intake than they should be getting. Balancing it out with extra muscle meats (heart especially, but any meat really) to dilute the amount of bone they’re eating a little might help.

      • Hey Zoe

        would you mind explaining to me in a little more details how the extra bone could be connected to excessive hair-balls?
        i’ve never came across this information before so i’m very intrigued.

  23. Thanks for information! It is nice to hear that I am on the right track! My three rescues are on a canned and/or raw diet and hairballs are not a problem in our house. I think I have seen only two in the past year between 3 cats. I definitely will be sharing!

  24. Is today really the national holiday for Hairballs….. what a hoot. we didn’t know that there was a day for it. Great article. We’re going to have HH save this one. We haven’t had any hairballs, but you never know.

    Have a great weekend.

    hugs, Bugsy and Knuckles

  25. I have 4 cats and all are rescued. One will NOT eat anything but dry food! He is 7 and I’ve tried everything to get him off of dry food… it won’t work with this cat! I will try to find a dry that has little to no grains and see what he does. He has hairballs a couple times a week!!!!! Thank you for the great advice!!!!! June

    • I have been using Solid Gold Indigo Moon for my very allergic female. It definitely helps her. grain-free & she loves it.

    • Because I can’t afford to shell out for the wet version always, we feed my cat Blue Buffalo’s wilderness formula – both the wet and dry versions are grain free. She has also never had a hairball in her life. She does have severe food allergies, so now that we found one that works, we are sticking to it. I give her small portions of the canned version as a treat each evening.

    • Try adding just a drop or two of kefir to the wet food each day and give your dry food addict his kefir either on food or with a medicine dropper. The probiotics in kefir have made a huge difference for my 15 year old calico.

    • If your cat is a dry food junky maybe you could try a natural dry food such as Wellness or Blue . Our cats are on Wellness canned but I use the dry in small amounts for treats at bed time. That might help.

    • try Instinct, Pure Vita or Blue dry foods they DO NOT HAVE GRAIN in them and many stores have small sample bags to try first

    • I use Evo food, both wet and dry. Unfortunately pet food chain stores (petco/ pertsmart) do not carry it. But we are lucky enough to have a few Chuck and Don’s close by that do! My cats have the softest/ shiniest coats out of any cat I have met, we are constantly getting compliments on how soft they are… The only time my 2 y/o “Resident” cat, Beyla, had hairballs was when we introduced Mosby to the house and she got into his Cat Chow that we were weening him off of. I didn’t know anything about this until I just read the article and now Beyla’s tummy issues totally make sense! (She has been on EVO since she was about 10 weeks)

  26. Thanks for the excellent educative article on “CAT HAIRBALLS”.I feed my two traditional Persian cats home made mixture of “Rice+Mince Meat+ Fish” and they relish the food and are healthy.Only defect is with my 7 year old female cat who tends to vomit “Hairballs” at least once quarterly.

    • Fish should never be a regular part of a cat’s diet. Fish causes thiamine deficiency (ehi in cats and can cause vitamin K deficiency.

      If you’re only feeding mince, they might not be getting enough/any bone in their diet, which is also vital.

      The rice is just unnecessary. As obligate carnivores, they don’t need carbs – it’s just filler.

  27. Happy National Hariball Awerness Day 🙂
    I have coughed up ONE hairball in my whole life (I´m 4 years young:) and that was because my mom-person was a slacker with my comb.
    I eat a mox of dryfood and wetfood and sometimes I get Catmalt as a snack 🙂
    My mom-person combs me efurry day now when I sheed a lot of for.

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