Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Hairballs: Messy, Harmless and Preventable

Pet Column for the week of August 27, 2001

Related information:

Services - Dermatology

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Hairballs can be a mess and an annoying problem for cat owners. Although hairballs are rather unpleasant, they do not usually mean that the cat is ill, and owners can take steps to reduce or eliminate them.

Dr. Christine Merle, a veterinarian formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, says, "Hairballs are made primarily of hair, plus some saliva, digested food, and gastric secretions. Cats get hairballs because they groom themselves with their tongues, which are covered with hundreds of tiny barbs that remove excess hair." As the hair comes out, it is often swallowed and then either passes through the body and comes out in the stool, or forms a large mass in the stomach. Once a hairball in the stomach reaches a certain size, it triggers vomiting and the hairball is expelled from the body.

Hairballs do not usually cause blockages in the stomach or intestines, as long as the cat is in good health and is not dehydrated. Dr. Merle says, "If the cat is dehydrated, then the contents of the stomach can become dry and form a blockage. This usually only happens to cats that are dehydrated because of an underlying medical problem." Blockages can also occur if the cat has been eating something other than hair, such as string or Easter grass. In this case the ball can become so large and compact that it can become lodged in the intestine.

Several methods for controlling hairballs are available to cat owners. One of the most effective ways of reducing hairballs is to brush the cat on a regular basis. This will reduce the amount of hair that is swallowed.

Another popular remedy is a gel, called Laxatone, which is made from petroleum jelly. This gel comes in palatable flavors such as poultry or beef. It is designed to be fed to the cat or spread on the hair where the cat will lick it off. If this method is used, it is best to avoid putting it directly on the paws because many cats may make a sticky mess by trying to flick it off instead of licking it.

The gel acts as a kind of lubricant and helps to ease the hair through the digestive system. It can be used a few times a week, or when unproductive retching or hacking occurs which could indicate that the cat is having trouble expelling a hairball.

Another remedy recently developed for hairballs is a hairball diet. This specially formulated food contains certain enzymes that prevent the hair from forming a ball that causes vomiting. If the food is used on a regularly, the hair will pass through the system and come out in the stool. "These diets are typically higher in fiber than other foods, so although hairballs may be eliminated, there may be an increase in fecal volume," warns Dr. Merle. "For people who do not want to change their cat's regular diet, there are also treats that can be given that have the same effect as the hairball diet."

Most of the time, hairballs are harmless and can be controlled with simple remedies. If you have any questions regarding hairballs, contact your local veterinarian.