Help With a Hairball

Martha T. has a cat named Luna who's having problems with a hairball.  Martha writes:

She has a hairball and can’t cough it up. Is there anything I can do to help her? Castor oil?

Martha, first you'll want to put away the castor oil.  While there are those who will claim that it's okay for cats, it should definitely be avoided.  If a little gets aspirated and makes its way into Luna's lungs, it could be very harmful.

That said, we presume that you're basing your diagnosis of a stuck hairball on the fact that she's dry-heaving and producing no vomit.  This could be caused by any number of things and should be checked out by your favorite veterinarian as soon as possible.  If she isn't eating or using the litter box as frequently as she usually does, the situation is urgent.

Once you know for sure that her trouble is hairball-related, there are several things you can do to help.  The first mode of attack is diet.  If you aren't feeding Luna an all-wet diet, now's the time to switch.  A high-quality wet or raw food is the first step toward hairball prevention and elimination.  There are those who claim that cats in the wild do not have hairballs at all due to their complex diet of prey animals.  There have yet to be sufficient studies done on the subject, but it is clear that a diet that's more like what cats would consume in the wild is a very good thing.  We sometimes recommend pumpkin puree as a digestive aid to use in conjunction with probiotics.  While the pumpkin will help probiotics flourish, it also introduced additional fiber that could increase hairball problems.  The fact is that we just don't know.  There need to be more studies.

If the hairball needs a little convincing, you can try adding slippery elm to Luna's meals.  1/8 teaspoon per meal should be enough to ease the hairball on its way.  If you don't have slippery elm, you can also use pure fish oil or pure safflower oil.  With those oils, you'll need one teaspoon per meal.

A hairball can quickly become an emergency.  If Luna stops eating, get her to the vet immediately.  We don't want to alarm you, but there are instances where a cat's digestive tract can become blocked by hair.  Surgery is the only option for removal of that sort of blockage.  Your vet will be able to x-ray Luna and determine if that's the case.

If a partial hairball is exposed at her anus, DO NOT PULL IT OUT.  It could be much longer than expected and by pulling you could do significant internal damage.  Instead, get her into a carrier and off to the vet.

As in many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Daily brushing sessions will help remove loose hairs and keep Luna from ingesting so much of the stuff.  If you need to remove lots of hair, nothing beats the FURminator.  Just be extra-careful as the hard steel blade can hurt if it hits Luna's shoulder blades or joints.  For daily brushing, we prefer a plain, stiff-bristle pet brush with a large surface area. 


Martha, almost all cat caregivers have faced the dreaded hairball issue from time to time.  Just know that it is possible for Luna to live a life with minimal hairball issues.  We wish you and Luna lots of luck!