Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 1, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.