Unexpected Ways to Cure Hairballs

It’s a scene that most cat-owners come to dread:

Your cat is relaxing, acting completely casual, maybe he’s even catching a nap in his favorite “sun spot.” Suddenly, he stands up, leans forward and starts making some horrible wheezing, hacking and retching noises. If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume that he was suffering from bronchitis—or stomach flu. Finally, after a few more heaves and coughs, the cat barfs up a large clump of wet fur. And as you stare at the mess that you now have to clean up, your cat goes back to relaxing.

If this scenario is a regular occurrence in your home, you’ve probably had it up to here with hairballs. What are these gross little “capsules” that Whiskers occasionally leaves around the house? What causes them? And how can you make him stop?!

The “Hair” Facts

Known scientifically as trichobezoars (from “tricho,” meaning “pertaining to hair” and “bezoar,” meaning “a mass in the intestinal tract”), hairballs are the end result of cats swallowing fur when they groom themselves. Now, cats aren’t the only animals that lick themselves clean, so it may seem odd that we never really hear about dogs or hamsters hacking up hairballs. But the difference lies in the design of their tongue. Anyone who’s ever been “kissed” or “groomed” by their cat can attest to the fact that cat tongues have a rough, scratchy, texture—it’s often compared to sandpaper. Unlike the smooth and soft tongues of canines and rodents, feline tongues are coated with tiny, hook-like structures called “papillae.” Papillae are great at scrubbing grime, oil and foreign smells off of your cat’s fur, but they’re also great at nabbing loose hair and sending it down his throat. Dogs and hamsters do swallow some hair when they groom themselves, but the amount of hair that winds up in their bellies is significantly less than what cats deal with.

Most of the swallowed fur just passes through a cat’s digestion and end up in his feces, but small amounts of hair typically remain in his stomach. Eventually, the stray hairs accumulate into a “clump.” And when the clump gets large enough, the cat regurgitates it, clearing it from his system.

Unless you own a completely hairless cat, you’ll probably deal with hairballs at some point during Fluffy’s life. Most cats will hack up a hairball every once in a while, and—theatrics aside—it’s usually nothing to worry about. However, if hairballs start to become a weekly ordeal for your cat, then it’s probably time to take action.

Incredible Edibles

First and foremost, you should always feed your cat a wholesome, nutritious diet—preferably one that’s all-natural. A healthy coat and digestive system is a huge part of preventing hairballs, so high-quality food is invaluable. And once you’ve got a good “baseline” with Tiger’s diet, you can make some creative contributions to his bowl. For example:

Corn oil, fish oil, safflower oil, or olive oil – Not only can these oils promote healthy skin and fur, but a teaspoon sprinkled over your cat’s food once a week can definitely “lube up” his GI tract. This means that more fur is able to pass through your cat’s digestion and less accumulates in his stomach to form hairballs. Here’s a fun idea: if you happen to buy canned tuna packed in oil, the next time you open a can, drain the oil over your cat’s food instead of just throwing it out. Mittens will probably be ecstatic!
Sardines – While you probably wouldn’t want to feed your cat an entire tin of these smelly little fish, one or two a month can actually be good for his health. Full of Omega-3s and the aforementioned fish oil, sardines work great as an occasional, healthy treat. Just make sure to get the kind packed in water, not sauce.
Canned pumpkin – With the official start of autumn just around the corner, prominent displays of canned pumpkin are starting to sprout up in supermarkets across America. While you’re stocking up for your Halloween and Thanksgiving baking, though, grab a little extra for your furry friend. A tablespoon of the stuff mixed into her regular food a few times a week can add a healthy amount of fiber to Princess’ diet, which will help her stay “regular” in the litter box department.
Unsalted Butter – Some cats could not care less about butter, but other felines are so enticed by the stuff that they’ll jump up on a kitchen table or countertop to steal a few licks. Butter really shouldn’t be a prominent part of your cat’s diet, but adding a small teaspoon to her food once a week can have the same “lubricating” effect as olive or corn oil.

Other Options

Here are some more ideas that don’t necessarily involve food:

Give Petroleum Jelly – If your cat is “going through a rough patch” with hairballs, a remedy might just be hiding in your medicine cabinet. Once a day for two or three days, you can put a little dab of the goop (no more than half a teaspoon) on to your cat’s paw or shoulder and let her lick it off. While the cat might be a little perplexed as to why you just wiped gunk onto her fur, the jelly will actually help encourage any clumps of fur in her stomach to “head south.” Note: Petroleum jelly should only be used as an occasional treatment. Do NOT make it a regular part of your cat’s diet!
Use a Leave-In Conditioner – Select a pet-safe conditioner and massage a small amount into your cat’s fur. Not only will it probably make Fluffy look “pretty,” but it will also increase her coat’s strength, moisture, and overall health. This encourages the hair to stay in place instead of practically “jumping” into her mouth during a grooming session.
Brush Your Cat – Although people often think of cats as being entirely “self-cleaning,” nearly all of them can benefit from a good brushing session at least once a week. Regular grooming is even more important during a cat’s “shedding season” (usually spring and autumn) and if the cat has long hair. Brushing your cat so often might seem like a bit of a pain (especially if your cat doesn’t particularly enjoy being brushed), but think of it this way: the more loose hair you remove with the brush, the less loose hair will end up in Muffin’s stomach. And the less loose hair that winds up in Muffin’s stomach, the less loose hair you’ll find in a damp, regurgitated clump on the rug!

Chances are, you’re not going to completely banish hairballs from your home—dealing with trichobezoars are just part of owning a cat. There are, however, some things that you can do to greatly cut back on the number of yucky “surprises” that you stumble upon. So, start with a healthy diet and then give some of these tips a try. You may find that curing Cookie’s hairball problem is as simple as tossing him a couple of sardines!

Photo courtesy of Douglas O’Brien on Flickr.

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