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Are hairballs a normal part of a cat's life?

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Every cat owner knows the fun of cleaning up hairballs. We also know the fun of stepping in them in the dark, or finding them when it's time to go to bed. And of course, we've all watched helplessly as our beautiful, furry cat vomits them up wherever he happens to be. While we accept all of that as part of being a cat owner, the truth is that frequent hairballs are not normal. If your cat has frequent hairballs, there might be something else going on.

Sometimes, the problem is simply that they aren't getting brushed often enough. You might notice that this is seasonal; if your cat seems to have more hairballs in the spring, that's because he's shedding his winter coat and swallowing more fur. Brushing him for five to ten minutes every day in the spring, and brushing him several times a week the rest of the year, can help a lot with this.

The problem might also dietary. Cats that are fed dry food are chronically dehydrated. They also don't instinctively seek out water the way we do, or even the way dogs do. In the wild, they get most of their water from their prey, so their thirst mechanism is diminished. According to veterinarian Karen Becker, a dehydrated cat's digestive system isn't as able to move fur through as it should be. So if your cat has a lot of hairballs, and you feed him dry food, try changing to wet food and see if that helps. A low-carb, grain-free wet food would be even better.

Be aware, adding more fiber to his diet isn't the answer. Dr. Becker recommends a species-appropriate diet, which doesn't include fiber. Veterinarian Lisa Pierson says that the amount of fiber a domestic cat would get from eating prey is negligible, since their prey is usually very small. A raw diet is best (despite efforts by the AVMA, the FDA, and others to discourage such a diet), however, a low-carb, grain-free diet may also help.

If the problem doesn't seem to be either brushing or diet, it could be something more serious. Problems with your cat's GI tract, such as irritable bowel disease (IBD), cancer, parasites, or something else, might be the problem. Veterinarian Fern Crist learned from another vet at a conference that she'd seen a major drop in the number of hairball cases after switching her patients over to low-carb, grain-free foods. This also suggests that diet is the root problem, but your cat will need treatment if there's anything else going on.

So if your cat has frequent hairballs, it could be an indication of a problem. If brushing more often and changing over to wet food hasn't helped, visit your vet to make sure there isn't something else going on.

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