Hairballs: 8 Ways to Lick the Problem
Few creatures are as fastidious as felines. They can spend hours licking their coats, and when they've covered every inch, they'll happily start again. They don't seem to mind swallowing a little hair -- it's all part of good grooming.
Sometimes, however, fur that should pass right through the digestive system gets trapped in the stomach. As more and more hair arrives, it begins forming an uncomfortable wad. That's when your pet starts gagging, hacking and trying to vomit it up.
While his retching may look wretched, hairballs are rarely a serious problem. "Most cats get hairballs at some point in their lives, and everything usually comes out fine," says Charles W. Hickey, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Richmond, Virginia. Try these tips to help make the process a little easier.
Try a tasty alternative.
Some hairball lubricants are downright delicious to cats. There are several delectable kinds available, like Laxatone and Petromalt. "I had a cat that loved his hairball remedy so much that he was always looking around the house for it," says Dr. Hickey.
Fix it with fiber.
"Sometimes a higher-fiber pet food is all it takes to accelerate the passage of a hairball," says Martin J. Fettman, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of pathology and clinical nutrition at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Fort Collins. When shopping for a high-fiber food, look for one containing 3.5 to 10 percent fiber. The fiber percentage is listed on the label.
Foil his fleas.
"If your cat is infested, he could be grooming himself more than usual and consequently swallowing more hair," says Dr. Hickey. "If you have a tried-and-true flea-busting method, use it, and your cat's hair-ball problems should improve," he says.
Coif your kitty.
"Combing and brushing your cat's fur every day can do wonders for hairball prevention," says Gary Beard, D.V.M., assistant dean at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama. "Cats can shed hundreds of hairs a day, especially in spring and summer. If you brush these hairs away, your cat's not going to be swallowing so many," he says.
Then wipe him down.
"After grooming your cat, use a moist washcloth to remove loose hairs your comb or brush might have missed," advises Dr. Dalley.
Take his mind off his fur.
"Some cats have personalities that make them compulsive lickers -- they can't get enough of grooming themselves," says Dr. Fettman. "Overgrooming can also be a response to stress." To give your cat a much-needed distraction, he recommends playing with him more often. If you give him something else to put his energy into, his grooming may become more normal and his hairballs may diminish.
When to see the vet
Although most hairballs are, well, hair today and gone tomorrow, some are longer-lasting -- and much more dangerous.
"Sometimes even normal-size hairballs can cause intestinal blockage or choking," says Charles W. Hickey, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Richmond, Virginia. "That's why experts advise a trip to the vet if the retching continues for more than three days or if your cat is constipated or refuses food for more than a day. A hairball that blocks the digestive tract can be deadly, so catching it early is important," says Dr. Hickey.
*Note: As long as your pet has no dietary restrictions, there are some brands of cat food formulated specifically to fight and prevent hairballs.