By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 1 September 2011)
Most cats suffer from hairballs, particularly during shedding season, and although cats tend to vomit them up as oblong masses, they’re usually quite harmless. However, in severe cases, hairballs can cause constipation or even block the digestive tract, necessitating surgery. The following approaches reduce the likelihood that cats will suffer from hairballs.
Longhaired cats are particularly susceptible to hairballs. Brushing a longhaired cat’s fur regularly removes all the loose hair that can otherwise lodge in the stomach, causing hairballs.
Special foods that are designed to decrease the likelihood of hairball formation can be purchased at most pet supply stores. Ask your veterinarian to recommend a brand of cat food that is specifically designed to prevent hairballs, or add a bit of canned pumpkin (pure pumpkin – not pie filling) to your cat’s food once or twice a week – 1-2 teaspoons for a cat under 15 pounds and 3 teaspoons for a cat over 15 pounds. Pumpkin is also a remedy for mild constipation or diarrhea, though severe or prolonged cases should be referred to a veterinarian. Giving the cat a little melted butter from time to time can also be highly effective.
If you can entice your cat to drink more water, this will help to flush out hair before it has the chance to clump in the stomach. Putting bowls of water at various locations around the house will encourage your cat to drink more. Many cats don’t like to drink and eat in the same spot, and may consume more water if the food and water bowls are separated. It is also common for cats to prefer running water, so purchasing a fountain-type cat water dish can be beneficial.
There are a number of laxative supplements for cats with chronic hairball problems that lubricate the ingested hairs to prevent their forming a hairball in the stomach. These supplements are available in paste form in flavours that cats enjoy and only need to be given once or twice a week.
Mineral Oil and Vaseline
Both mineral oil and Vaseline are effective hairball remedies, but they should be used with caution. Many owners give their cats mineral oil by mouth as a hairball remedy, but this can have deadly consequences. Cats may accidentally inhale the mineral oil, which can lead to death. A teaspoon of mineral oil can be added to an adult cat’s food once or twice a week but should never be force-fed.
Vaseline (also known as petroleum jelly) is safer, and many cats will eat it voluntarily. However, both mineral oil and Vaseline interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, which can lead to serious deficiencies if used regularly on a long-term basis, though they should cause no problems if used occasionally or for a short time. Half a teaspoon of Vaseline once or twice a week should be sufficient to treat hairballs. If the cat won’t eat it voluntarily, it can be rubbed onto his paws so that he will lick it off.
Commercial hairball preparations usually contain petroleum jelly or mineral oil, but many of them also contain vitamins to prevent adverse health consequences when used regularly on a long-term basis.
Consult a Veterinarian
Constipation, dry retching, or vomiting may indicate a medical problem other than hairballs. If you’re unsure about whether or not hairballs are the culprit, consult a veterinarian in order to rule out serious medical problems and discuss treatment options, as some cats may have medical issues that would make certain foods or supplements unsafe.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. (2008). “Hairballs in Cats.” AnimalHealthCare.ca.
- Eldredge, Debra M., DVM; Carlson, Delbert G., DVM; Carlson, Liisa D., DVM; Giffin, James M., MD; & Adelman, Beth (Ed.). (2007). Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, Fully Revised and Updated, 3rd. Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.
- Merck & Co., Inc., Eds. Cynthia M. Kahn, BA, MA & Scott Line, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVB. (2007). The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition.