We asked Dr. Gloria Ku these following questions:
Why do cats vomit hairballs?
Cats are often thought to have hairballs regularly as a matter of course. In fact so many do, that there are lots of remedies and strategies to address this issue. Having had multiple cats myself, I have experienced exactly the above scenario more than once! Some theorize that the hair accumulated from grooming is too much for the kitty to digest and it will form a ball and be regurgitated or vomited up much like a bird of prey might bring up a pellet after ingesting a mouse or small rodent. In most cases, wild cats in zoos are not regular vomiters, and so this may not actually be the reason. In some cases, excessive grooming due to skin conditions or allergies can cause the ingestion of more than a normal amount of hair leading to this process. Others speculate that there is, in fact, no real correlation with ingesting hair, and that cats are commonly seen vomiting because domestication and the types of food we feed domestic cats have digestibility issues.
My personal observation is that cats do occasionally vomit hairballs (on the order of once every 2-4 weeks in some cases, less in others), but that cats that vomit more than a few times a week often have other health issues at the root of the problem. This can be anything from kidney or liver problems, inflammatory bowel disease and/or pancreatitis, to “food allergies.” If your kitty is one that vomits frequently, it is a good idea to consider that hairballs are not the only reason for frequent vomiting in cats, and that this may not actually be “normal.”
What can cat owners do to prevent hairballs? Does Cat Lax or hairball diets work?
Typical remedies for hairballs involve giving products like Cat Lax or Petromalt (typically cod liver oil or petroleum based products intended to aid in lubricating the passage of hairballs through to the bowel movement). These are often safe to use and sometimes very effective.
There are also commercially available “hairball control” diets which have similar properties (mildly increase lubrication), but also typically add fiber to the diet to increase the bulk of the stool and promote passage of hair along with everything else through to the bowel movement. Scientific publications have been lacking to prove actual benefit, but empirical evidence (my own cat included) would suggest that they often do help.
We also suggest brushing your cat regularly to minimize the amount of hair that he/she may ingest with normal self grooming. Some may even wish to trim their long haired kitties fur. Flea control and treating any skin conditions or allergies are also important to minimize excessive grooming habits.
However, if standard remedies do not seem to be effective, I would encourage you to speak to your veterinarian about your cat’s vomiting, and determine if there is another cause. Often early detection of the underlying reason (e.g. liver problems, kidney issues, intestinal inflammation or a dietary intolerance) makes its correction that much easier. Remember, vomiting may just be a symptom of something else.