How to Treat Hairballs in Cats

Last Updated THURS 12 DEC 2019

This article is written by Pet Circle qualified veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski, BVSc

Cats and hairballs go paw in paw. If you know what a cat is, you will likely have heard of their infamous slimy counterparts. Despite their name, hairballs are rarely presented as a ball or spherical shape. Rather, they are usually an elongated sausage shape like some furry delicatessen nightmare. In fact, many people think they look like a 'big ol' cat turd'. Apart from the obvious unpleasant nature of hairballs, they can also be quite dangerous for your cat.

Skip to a section:

1. What Is a Hairball?

2. Are Hairballs Normal?

3. What Causes Hairballs in Cats?

4. How To Treat Hairballs

4. a) Best Hairball Food

4. b) The Role of Fibre

4. c) Pastes and Laxatives

4. d) Anti-furball Brushes

4. e) Addressing Stress and Anxiety

5. Further Reading

What is a hairball?

Hairballs, or trichobezoars, are clumps of hair regurgitated by cats. They are often mistaken for fecal matter. Fur is swallowed during the grooming process due to the unique barbs on your kitty's tongue.

When a cat regurgitates a furball, they often appear to be vomiting or coughing. If you've never seen a cat regurgitate a hairball, you might be convinced your cat has just 'vomited up poo'. (Yes, sorry for the vivid description, but it's a bit of a gross topic!)


Are hairballs normal?

Ultimately, fur should be able to pass normally through your cat's digestive tract without causing a blockage or forming a bezoar. Cats are naturally made to groom themselves and swallow small amounts of fur; so no, while hairballs are common they shouldn't really be regarded as 'normal'. For most cats, regurgitating hairballs more than once a week warrants veterinary assistance.


What Causes Hairballs?

Hairballs aren't ideal, which means there may be an underlying cause. There are a number of reasons why your kitty might be experiencing hairballs:

1. Increased Hair Shedding Hairballs are much more common in springtime, when your cat begins to shed their winter coat and groom themselves more as the weather heats up. Cats with long hair are likewise more likely to suffer from hairballs.

2. Skin Issues. Kitties with itchy or dry skin may also suffer from furballs. This occurs because of two factors: firstly, itchy cats tend to lick excessively at their skin, which increases the volume of fur swallowed. Secondly, dry or dull fur secondary to skin issues may shed more, and is more likely to form a clump rather than pass smoothly. Skin issues that are common in cats that may lead to hairballs include fleas, food allergies, and environmental allergies.

3. Digestive Issues. A sensitive stomach can also make your cat more prone to hairballs, as poor digestion can lead to impeded passing of ingesta. Plus, cats who vomit frequently due to other causes might be less able to tolerate fur in their belly.

4. Stress and Anxiety. Some people bite their nails or grind their teeth when they're anxious so it's no surprise that cats may also exhibit certain behaviours when anxious or stressed. Increased grooming is a common sign of anxiety which may not only contribute to hairball formation but can also cause bald patches and sores.

The following tips will help you to understand the origin of your cat's hairball problem and ways to reduce its severity by addressing factors such as diet, grooming and mental health.

How to Treat Hairballs in Cats

1. Try a hairball-specific food

Your cat's diet plays a very important role in the health and condition of your their coat as well as their digestive function. Lack of sufficient nourishment and essential vitamins and minerals can increase the rate of dying and shedding hair. Likewise, a lack of fibre can lead to constipation, slowed digestion, and stomach upsets. All of these issues can lead to furballs.

A specially formulated Hairball Diet is always the best place to start. Hairball diets are complete and balanced, so you can feed them as the sole diet. They are also completely safe to feed to cats who don't suffer from furballs, which means they are a convenient option for multi-cat households.

How do Hairball Diets work?

  • High in fibre content to help push hair through the digestive system
  • Highly digestible formula to improve digestion
  • Skin support nutrients to reduce itchy skin
  • Omega fatty acids to promote glossy, shiny fur

Shop Hairball Diets

Top Hairball Diets

Royal Canin Intense Hairball

This premium dry food contains psyllium and micronised fibres to double the amount of hair that naturally passes through the digestive tract, helping to reduce hairball formation.

Hills Hairball Control

Hills Hairball Control is available in 'adult' and 'senior' formulations. It contains natural fibre, as well as an exclusive blend of omega 6 fatty acids to promote healthy skin and shiny coat.

Advance Hairball

This Aussie-made diet helps reduce hairballs with psyllium husk and slippery elm bark, which assist ingested hair to move gently through the digestive tract.

Hills Hairball Pouches

With a variety of different flavours, Hills Hairball and Urinary Pouches help promote healthy urinary system as well as a reduction in hairballs. This wet food is perfect for cats with multiple issues.

2. Add fibre to the food

Some cats cannot be fed a hairball diet, perhaps because they need to be on another food such as a prescription diet for another medical reason. In cases like this, you can alternatively try adding some fibre to their existing food. The easiest way to do this is with some natural psyllium fibre (one small teaspoon daily is usually enough), or by adding some mushy cooked pumpkin or zucchini to the food. As an added bonus, adding fibre to the food can also help with constipation issues.


3. Try Hairball Paste or Laxative

To help give some extra lubrication throughout the gastrointestinal tract, you can also consider using a hairball paste. These are usualy petroleum or paraffin-based, and help with the passage of clumps of hair.

A note about different types of laxatives: Many 'laxatives' available for cats work by simply lubricating intestinal contents, as they are paraffin based. These products will be effective against hairballs as well as constipation. However, some laxatives, such as those based on lactulose, work osmotically by drawing fluid into the intestinal cavity; and are therefore not suitable for hairball lubrication. Therefore, always read the label or ask your vet before giving your kitty cat a laxative!

Aristopet Cat Laxative Paste

This paste contains soft white paraffin to help gently relieve constipation caused by the accumulation of ingested hair in the gastrointestinal tract.

Laxatives are also not ideal for ongoing or long term use. We generally recommend only using during times of peak hairball events. The potential side effects associated with hairball pastes appears to be a reduced absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, D, E and K.


4. Pick Up That Brush

Because cats ingest hair through self-grooming, you can reduce the amount of ingested hair by brushing your kitty more frequently. Daily brushing is particularly important during shedding periods. Bristle brushes are a popular option for most cats, especially short haired breeds, but long haired cats may benefit more from a deshedding brush like the Furminator instead. If your cat despises being brushed, the Kong Zoom Groom is adored by most kitties as it provides a gentle massage while stimulating blood flow and removing dead hairs.

Top Hairbrushes For Cats

5. Address Stress and Anxiety

If you suspect your cat may be over-grooming (and subsequently suffering from hairballs) due to stress or anxiety, you will need to pinpoint and treat the cause (new pet, new house etc).

How To Decrease Stress in Anxious Cats

  • 1. Try Feliway. This pheromone-diffusing spray is very effective at reducing stress in anxious cats. Completely odourless to humans, the Feliway wall diffuser can be plugged in and left to disperse feline calming pheromone throughout your home.
  • 2. Provide plenty of perches and hiding places. If there's anything at home causing stress for your kitty such as a child or another pet, it's important that your cat feels they have a safe space to escape to. Why not try a tall cat tree which provides extra high perches and hiding boxes in one.
  • 3. Ensure enough litter trays. This is particularly important for multi-cat households. If your cat doesn't have a toilet all to themselves, they can become stressed and act out by spraying, showing aggression, or over-grooming.
  • 4. Anti-anxiety medication. This should be the last resort if you can't find an improvement with non-medicated treatments. Medications such as Clomicalm or Valium may be required to calm cats with severe anxiety.

Shop Feliway

The Feliway diffuser continuously releases the Feliway pheromone into your cat's environment to help reduce their stress levels.

Shop Cat Furniture

Cat furniture can easily provide hidey holes as well as multi-level perches.

Shop Litter Trays

Always make sure your cat has enough litter trays in the house.

Shop Vetalogica Tranquil Formula

This natural chew contains Tryptophan and B group vitamins to maintain an ideal emotional balance.

3. Ensure parasite prevention is up to date

Parasites such as fleas can also cause increased hair loss or excessive grooming. If your cat has fleas, be sure to treat them with a monthly protection like Comfortis or Bravecto.

Our top recommended flea products for cats

Cats commonly suffer from hairballs, but if it is happening more than once a week, you will need to take steps to address the problem. Unexpelled hairballs can cause a lot of trouble, sometimes requiring surgical intervention. A high fibre diet and regular grooming (by a human) can drastically reduce hairball formation and help to expel swallowed hair as waste. Managing anxiety, allergies and flea infestations as required will also help to control and reduce excessive grooming and hair consumption.

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