During a late-night party a couple of years ago, my cat Piper strolled into the living room, where several of my friends were lounging on the floor with drinks, and made a noise not unlike the one I imagine a wookiee would make while giving birth to Satan’s baby. The few people who didn’t flee the room in terror watched curiously while Piper began dry heaving with her tongue out. They were soon treated to the sight of a gooey tube-shaped mass of white hair on the carpet. Poor Piper. For me, her hairball was gross and a little embarrassing, but still kind of funny…we had, after all, been drinking. For her, hairballs—or trichobezoars, if you’re into scientific terms—are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. So to help, one should really work at preventing hairballs.

A cat’s tongue is structured to pull away dead hair when she licks her fur, and most of that hair passes through the digestive system and ends up in the litter box. But sometimes a hair ball forms in the stomach, and can only be expelled by the cat throwing up. Since nobody—not even a cat—likes to throw up, and because cat vomit is gross to clean out of the carpet, the best hairball remedy is hairball prevention. Because, really, hiring carpet cleaners or buying carpet treatments is pretty expensive.

Cat Hairball Symptoms

  • Vomiting, especially after eating. Hairballs are the number one cause of vomiting in cats.
  • Coughing, gagging, or hacking.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Inability to poo.
  • Tube-shaped masses of hair (and often vomit) on the floor or furniture.
  • See also: cat hair

Best Ways to Prevent Hairballs

Regular brushing is the best way to prevent hairballs in cats.

After all, the more dead hair you remove from your cat’s coat with a brush or comb, the less he has to swallow when he grooms himself. Ideally, you should brush a longhaired cat once a day. Once a week is usually sufficient for shorthaired cats. Either way, brushing doesn’t have to be a chore; most cats enjoy it, and if you keep a brush near the La-Z-Boy, you can do it whenever the kitty crawls into your lap while watching your shows.

Regular use of a petroleum-based hair ball remedy such as Petromalt can help move hair through the digestive system.

Most brands of hairball treatment recommend a small weekly dose, but be sure to read the directions on the product you use. Commercial hairball remedies are formulated to taste appealing to cats, but if your cat doesn’t readily eat the treatment from your finger or out of her food dish, you might try spreading it on her paws or just under her nose. This last method is the only way I can get Piper to take her hairball medicine.

Hairball treats provide another option for lubricating your cat’s digestive system.

They’re an especially clever option for cats that resist eating a hairball remedy from a tube. Hairball treats usually have a crunchy outer shell and a gooey inside made with mineral oil. Your cat has to eat a lot of these every day (usually around 15) or they won’t be effective. While your cat probably won’t mind this, it’s not a good idea if he has a weight problem. Amazon sells a wide variety of Hairball treats to help with kitty.

Many pet food companies make hairball cat food.

Most of these are effective because they increase the fiber in your cat’s diet, so the package of a hairball formula cat food should indicate that the food contains at least 8% crude fiber. As with any new cat food, make the switch gradually by mixing increasing amounts of the hairball food with the old food until you’re feeding the new food exclusively. A sudden change in diet could give your cat more stomach problems than it remedies.

You can increase your cat’s fiber intake in other ways, too.

If you can’t afford hairball cat food, or if your cat must be on another special formula food, get creative. (Within reason, of course.) Some people notice a decrease in cat hairballs when they supplement their cat’s diet with a daily teaspoon of canned pumpkin or baby food squash. Either one of these remedies can be fed to a cat as a treat between meals, or mixed in with her regular dry or wet food.

Best Treatment for Hairballs

If, despite your best preventative efforts, you notice your cat exhibiting any of the hairball symptoms listed on the left side of this page, it’s pretty easy to offer your cat hairball relief. If your cat hasn’t already vomited the hairball on her own, you can simply give her an increased dose of commercial hairball remedy. Usually, this means a daily dose until the hairball is expelled or the symptoms pass, but follow the instructions on the package. Too much petroleum can interfere with your cat’s absorption of vitamin A, so you want to be careful not to give her too large a dose. For the same reason, you shouldn’t feed your cat plain petroleum jelly, the complications will outweigh the hassles of hairballs. Other home remedies can also be dangerous and should be avoided. Cod liver oil supplies too much of vitamins A and D, and plain mineral oil can be inhaled and cause pneumonia.

Occasionally hairballs grow so large that they can endanger a cat’s life, and must be removed surgically. Be alert for the symptoms of a major hairball problem: if your cat vomits frequently, is not eating, loses weight, or seems to have a swollen or sensitive abdomen, take him to a veterinarian right away. Also, keep in mind that many hairball symptoms can actually point to more serious health issues. A cat that vomits frequently without producing a hairball should visit the vet. Likewise, if your cat is coughing but never hacks up a hairball, he may be suffering from feline asthma or an upper respiratory infection.

Best Natural Hairball Remedies

Cat grass. Usually barley, oat, rye, wheat, and/or flax grass, this is a safe and natural way to prevent hairballs by adding fiber to your cat’s diet. If your cat already has a hairball, eating cat grass may induce vomiting that will expel the hairball. Amazon sells Todd’s Seeds cat grass seeds.

Petroleum-free hairball gel. Brands such as Vetbasis use natural oils rather than petroleum to move hairballs through the digestive tract without the risk of blocking nutrient absorption.

Natural hairball treats. Some manufacturers, including Purrfectly Natural, have created treats that work to prevent hairballs and promote intestinal health without the use of petroleum, mineral oil, or chemical preservatives.

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