Question: My 11-year-old Norwegian Forest cat, Rudy, keeps vomiting up hairballs. My vet suggested some petroleum-derived products to get rid of the hairballs as well as an expensive commercial hairball-control diet, but I'd rather try natural solutions if possible. Can you offer any advice?
L.W., via email
Answer: Rudy's problem is very common in cats, especially among long-haired breeds like Ragdolls, Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest cats, Persians and Scottish Folds. Since cats spend a large chunk of their time grooming themselves, they end up swallowing some of the loose hair from their coats. Hairs tend to stick together and, because they cannot be digested, form lumps or clumps commonly referred to as hairballs or furballs. The technical term is trichobezoar.
While some hair does get eliminated in feces, some remains in the stomach, and hair that stays there for a long time forms a dense mass. Most of the time, cats vomit up these 'trichobezoars,' but occasionally these dense balls of fur can irritate the stomach and move further down into the intestine, where they can cause blockages.
Cats with a flea problem or other skin issues tend to overgroom, so any condition that causes a cat to groom excessively can promote hairball formation.
Vomiting furballs frequently, excessive licking and grooming, hair in the feces, sudden loss of appetite, uneasy demeanor, retching and unproductive vomiting are some of the signs of a hairball problem.
If your cat stops eating, has a swollen abdomen or cannot defecate, it is important to take him to a vet, who can palpate the abdomen to check for blockages. Sometimes an ultrasound or X-ray may be necessary to rule out other foreign bodies that may have caused a blockage.
There are a number of petroleum jelly- and mineral oil-based hairball treatments on the market to aid cats in the passing of hairballs, such as Laxatone and Defurr-UM. These pastes are designed to lubricate the digestive tract to allow smooth passage of the hairballs and feces. Some also work by having a mild laxative effect.
Commercial hairball-control cat foods are also readily available, which are generally high in fiber to get hairballs moving through the digestive system.
However, if you'd prefer to try a natural approach, there are plenty of options.
The best way to deal with hairballs is to prevent them from forming in the first place. The simplest way to do this is to regularly brush your cat's fur, which will limit the amount of hair your cat swallows.
Grooming is part of your cat's normal behavioral repertoire. Cats have a rasp-like tongue with a number of tiny barbs all pointing in one direction, and when they groom, the barbs dislodge loose hair. By brushing your cat regularly, you are mimicking that action and reducing the amount of dead or loose hair. It's also a great time to bond with your cat.
There are countless brushes, combs, gloves and 'deshedding tools' available for grooming cats that may can help you reduce the amount of fur your cat ingests. FURminator deshedding tools, for example, available for small and large cats, long-haired or short-haired, are claimed to reduce shedding by up to 90 percent (www.furminator.net).
If you'd rather not go for an expensive commercial cat food, try adding the following to Rudy's regular diet.
High-fiber foods. These are good sources of fiber and have the capacity to drag hair with them while moving down the gut:
Oat bran and green beans
Suggested dosage: Add a small amount to your cat's regular food a few times a week
Suggested dosage: ½ to 1 tsp with a meal every other day
Psyllium and flaxseeds (these are also great natural laxatives)
Suggested dosage: ¼ tsp added to food 2-3 times a week
Sardine oil. Mixing some sardine oil into Rudy's food, or feeding it to him by mouth directly, may help eliminate hairballs. See box, above, for a simple 'Feline Fishcake' recipe you can make that incorporates sardine oil.
Grass. Allowing Rudy access to grass is a simple way to get rid of hairballs. Cats naturally eat grass to help them vomit up furballs when needed. If you don't have a garden, you can buy 'cat grass' you can grow indoors and keep somewhere Rudy can get to easily.
Homemade laxative. Mix raw oatmeal, honey and olive oil into a paste for a simple hairball remedy.
Suggested dosage: Feed 1-2 Tbsp as a treat when you see hairball vomits. This can also be given 2-3 times a week if your cat is prone to hairballs
Dr Francis Hunter, in his book Everyday Homeopathy for Animals, recommends the following homeopathic remedies:
Nux Vomica 6c
Suggested dosage: 3-4 times daily for a day or two until symptoms disappear. During times of excess shedding, try a daily dose every morning for up to two weeks if needed
Suggested dosage: twice a week for 2-4 weeks while your cat is going through a seasonal shed; this will shorten the molting period
All-natural anti-hairball products
There are some commercial hairball remedies that don't contain petroleum jelly or mineral oil, made with all-natural ingredients. Hairball Gold by Pet Wellbeing (www.petwellbeing.com) is a blend of lubricating and digestion-assisting herbs, including slippery elm bark, marshmallow root and aloe vera, in a coconut oil base, designed to help hairballs pass through the digestive tract safely. Devised by a holistic vet, the formula contains only certified organic herbs and can be used to treat hairball episodes as well as for routine maintenance.
Anti-hairball feline fishcakes
2 × 4-oz cans of sardines in sunflower oil
1 cup self-rising flour
1 large free-range egg
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 heaped Tbsp unset (runny) honey
1) Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease a 9 × 8-in shallow baking sheet.
2) Combine and mash all the ingredients together in a large bowl until the mixture comes together to make a soft dough.
3) Spread dough evenly over the baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tray. Cut into small bite-sized squares.
4) Keep in an airtight glass container in the fridge for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: