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What to do About Hairballs in Cats?

  • 10 min read
Since every cat swallows hair every day, every cat can develop hairballs that cause problems for them. You can read here which cats are particularly at risk and how you can easily promote the natural elimination of cat hair.

Why Do Cats Get Hairballs?

Do you dedicate a quarter of your day, or maybe even half, to your personal hygiene? What sounds a bit exaggerated for us humans is completely normal for our velvet paws. They lick their fur extensively every day and a lot of hair gets caught on their rough tongue. Studies have shown that an average short hair cat weighing 4 kg swallows around 75 g of hair in this way every year. The cats simply excrete a large part of it in their feces. The rest is regurgitated from the stomach and vomited. It’s unpleasant for us when it happens in the apartment, but it’s completely normal.

Are hairballs dangerous in cats?

Problems arise when large amounts of hair collect in the cat’s stomach and clump together to form solid hairballs (trichobezoars), which lead to frequent vomiting or which can no longer be vomited at all. In the worst case, such trichobezoars can cause a life-threatening acute intestinal obstruction (ileus). But chronic problems caused by hairballs can also affect your cat’s quality of life if he repeatedly vomits, has stomach pain, and therefore eats poorly and loses weight. The longer a hairball stays in the stomach or intestines, the larger and harder it can become. First, fat from food accumulates on the hair, forming a solid lump. Later, this lump can even calcify and resemble a stone.
Cat hairballs

Which cats suffer from hairballs most often?

For example, there is an increased risk of the formation of problematic hairballs:
    • longhair cats
    • indoor cats
    • increased hair loss, e.g.:
        • in the change of coat (spring, autumn)
        • in case of hair loss due to illnesses
    • increased cleaning, for example because of
        • itching
        • psychological stress (psychogenic leak alopecia)
    • Intestinal diseases or administration of medications that inhibit intestinal motor function and thus impair the further transport of hair

How do I know if my cat has hairball problems?

As already mentioned, there is no reason to worry if your cat throws up hair or small hairballs from time to time or if you find hair in the cat’s feces. However, there are some signs you can use to tell if swallowed hair is becoming a problem for your cat. If you see these signs in your cat, you should have the cause checked by a vet:

Frequent vomiting due to hairballs

If your cat throws up hair once or twice a week, this is usually still normal. The hairs may be mixed with stomach contents or appear as small, firm hairballs. If the cat vomits more frequently, this could be an indication that it has to produce an above-average amount of hair or that it is suffering from a gastrointestinal illness. If your cat is also losing weight, eating poorly or showing stomach pains, it is essential that you see a veterinarian.

Bloody poop from hairballs

Large amounts of hair can irritate the intestinal wall and cause colon inflammation. The cat feces not only contains a lot of hair, but can also be covered by a layer of mucus in which streaks of blood can be found.

Nibbling house plants because of hairballs

In the wild, cats use grass and other green plants to absorb mucus and fiber, which makes it easier for them to shed their hair. Indoor cats like to eat cat grass for this purpose. If this is not available to them or if their digestion is excessive, they sometimes eat other plants. Since we humans find many beautiful plants that are poisonous to cats (e.g. orchids, cyclamen and many more), this can quickly become dangerous.

Constipation or intestinal obstruction caused by hairballs

Hairballs can become so large and solid that they completely or partially block the intestines. Then the intestine (or stomach) swells in front of the blocked area and fluid flows in, which is very painful and puts a lot of strain on the circulatory system. Common signs of an intestinal obstruction include:
    • Vomiting (Vomits)
    • diarrhea
    • Food refusal (anorexia)
    • weight loss
    • stomach pain
    • Rare or no defecation (constipation)
    • constant urge to defecate, unsuccessful straining
    • raised skin fold does not disappear immediately (signs of dehydration)
In the event of an acute intestinal obstruction, affected cats develop circulatory problems up to and including shock, which can be recognized, for example, by:
    • weakness
    • pale, dry mucous membranes
The trichobezoar may be felt as a hard lump in the stomach during the veterinary examination. In order to be able to say with certainty whether a hairball, another foreign body or, for example, an intestinal obstruction is the cause, you need further diagnostics or an operation. Rarely, hairballs also cause other complications such as a twisting of the stomach as a result of impaired gastric emptying, or obstruction of the esophagus.
Cat with hairball

How can I prevent hairballs in my cat?

Help against hairballs in cats:
    • regular brushing
    • feeding several times a day
    • cat grass
    • fiber-rich cat food
    • special supplementary food
Unless your cat is particularly at risk of getting hairballs, the first three steps are usually enough to prevent problems. During the change of coat or if your cat belongs to a risk group, special feeding may also be necessary.

Regular brushing against hairballs

We can help our velvet paws groom themselves by brushing them to remove loose hair. Especially during the change of coat, when a lot of hair falls out, this is a good way to protect them from hairballs forming. Because most hairballs appear during the change of coat. Since long-haired cats develop trichobezoars much more frequently, regular brushing is not only useful during the change of coat, but throughout the year.

Feeding several times a day against hairballs

To ensure that the hair does not accumulate in the stomach, but is transported quickly through the intestines, it helps to offer the cat several small meals. With every small portion of food, some hair also begins its journey through the intestines towards the litter box.

Cat grass against hairballs

Especially if your cat is a house cat without freedom of movement, her cat grass will help to get rid of hair that has been swallowed, because the fibrous stalks encourage the hair to be vomited. For this purpose, outdoor cats eat grass and parts of plants outside, so they regulate the “fiber content” in their food themselves, while indoor cats depend on us providing them with suitable plants in the house. Cat grass is actually not a specific type of grass, but mostly a mixture of different types of grain (e.g. wheat, oats, millet, …) that can be purchased in advance or in seed packets. The tender stalks grow quickly and are easy to care for. They just shouldn’t get moldy because that’s unhealthy for the cat. Cyprus grass, which is sometimes sold commercially under the name cat grass, is not recommended because it has such sharp edges that it can injure the cat’s mucous membranes.

High-fiber anti-hairball food

Cat food with an increased proportion of so-called dietary fibers (fiber and mucilage) helps the cat excrete more hair in the feces.
    • Fiber (insoluble fibers, e.g. cellulose) stimulates intestinal activity.
    • Mucilage (soluble fibers, e.g. psyllium) ensure that the feces does not become too solid and facilitate excretion by forming a protective gel.
According to studies by Royal Canin, for example, the average shedding of hairs increases by 72% when fed Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Hairball cat food over a longer period of time compared to conventional cat foods without a special anti-hairball formula. This reduces the risk of clumping and hairball formation in the cat’s gastrointestinal tract.
Cat licking her fur

Supplementary food against hairballs

Because so many cats are affected by hairballs, there are many products available to help them eliminate the inevitable hairballs and prevent the formation of dangerous bezoars. They are all well tolerated, but must not be overdosed.

Cat malt

Many cat owners use malt pastes to prevent hairballs, since most cats like to lick cat malt off their fingers. The paste makes the hair balls in the stomach more slippery and has a slightly laxative effect. In Dr. Hölter’s online shop you will find, for example, the cp-Pharma Laxative malt paste . By the way: Milk or cream also have a laxative and vomiting-promoting effect, because cats cannot digest milk sugar and are lactose intolerant. Maybe that’s where the typical image of the cream-licking cat comes from? But if you’ve ever seen a lactose-intolerant person suffer from stomach pain, you certainly don’t want to do that to your cat on a permanent basis.

Oil-based hairball products

Alternatively, there are pastes or chewing drops with oils (e.g. indigestible paraffin oil), which help swallowed hairs slip through the digestive system more easily, e.g
    • Vetoquinol Bezo-Pet
    • Alfavet FeliGum Hairball

Dietary fibers

If you don’t want to change your food because of hairballs, or if you can’t change it for medical reasons, you can also add dietary fiber to your usual food. It is best to slowly increase the amount of fiber over a few days up to the dose specified by the manufacturer. When adding dietary fiber over the long term, it should be borne in mind that it reduces the digestibility of the food, so that the amount of feces increases and the cat absorbs fewer calories, vitamins and minerals, etc. than without added fiber. If you feed your cat a higher dose for a longer period of time, it could be the case that your cat loses weight or gets a dull coat. Constipation can also occur with overdose. When feeding additional fibers, it is very important that drinking facilities are always available, because the fibers swell up in the intestines.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are hairballs and why do cats get them?

Hairballs are clumps of hair that accumulate in a cat’s stomach or digestive tract. Cats typically develop hairballs as a result of grooming, especially if they have long hair. When cats groom themselves, they ingest loose hair which can form into hairballs over time.

How can hairballs in cats be prevented?

To prevent hairballs in cats, regular grooming is essential. Brushing your cat regularly helps to remove loose hair before hairballs can develop. Additionally, there are hairball remedies available that can help the hairballs pass through the digestive tract

What are the signs that a cat may have a hairball?

If your cat is retching frequently, coughing, or trying to vomit without producing anything, it may be a sign that a hairball is causing a blockage. Keep an eye on your cat’s behavior and consult a vet if you suspect an issue.

Can the cat’s food influence the development of hairballs?

Yes, the cat’s food can play a role in the development of hairballs. Certain diets or lack of proper cat health can contribute to the frequency of hairballs in cats. It’s important to provide a balanced diet and proper grooming routine to help prevent hairballs.

Are older cats more prone to hairballs than younger ones?

Yes, older cats are more likely to develop hairballs compared to younger cats. As cats age, their grooming habits may change.

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Hamna Nasir is a dedicated cat lover, avid traveler, and accomplished author. Born and raised in the bustling city of San Francisco, Hamna's education journey led her to Boston where her interests expanded and intersected in unexpected ways. Hamna's ontent explores a multitude of topics, from preparing your cat for its first trip and choosing pet-friendly accommodations to understanding feline behavior in different environments. Her first-hand experiences, love for storytelling, and unwavering commitment to enhancing the bond between cats and their owners have earned her a devoted following. Her insights have been celebrated by pet lovers, adventure enthusiasts, and travel bloggers alike.