Usually harmless, hairballs that your cat brings up every once in a while consist of fur ingested by the animal when cleaning itself. Some hairballs can not be dislodged by the cat which is the time it can cause problems. At this point, if non-responsive to standard treatment (usually by way of laxatives), the cat might need surgical intervention or it could possibly die.
Since hairballs are soft masses, they do not show up on x-rays so owners need to be aware of their pet's grooming habits. If you describe your cat as one that is always licking its coat and grooming itself, you should mention this to your veterinarian if the animal seems to be lethargic, losing weight and / or is disinterested in food.
Questionable Prevention of Hairballs
In his book Amazing Kitchen Cures, Joey Green claims that using a little Alberto VO5 conditioner in your cat's coat is a hairball prevention measure. He says the conditioner is safe because it's non-toxic and natural.
However, a March 2009 report regarding baby shampoos and children's bubble baths from big brand names like Johnson's, L'Oreal, Sesame Street, Huggies and Pampers, was cited in the news recently, saying that trace amounts of formaldehyde and other chemicals have been found in them. The cancer-causing toxins have not been separately added to the products (thus are not required to be listed as ingredients) but are by-products of chemical manufacturing and product development.
Although initial findings are not calling for product recall citing that the soaps are used quickly and then rinsed off children's skin and scalps, the same can not be said for cats. If you put even a small amount of conditioner in a cat's coat, its grooming habits are such that the product will be ingested.
First Line of Defense Against Hairballs
The best thing you can do for your cat to prevent hairballs is to use a steel-toothed comb or a curry brush (one with rubber nubs) and comb her with it regularly. Simple, but there it is. Many cat owners find that the de- shedding tool called The Furminator ruins the animal's top coat (although dog owners tend to swear by it). Using a regular pet brush on your cat does not usually touch the undercoat, but can be add a nice finishing glossy touch to her fur.
If you have a kitten, this is the time to get her used to being groomed by you. If your cat does not appreciate grooming, a little at a time will help with periodic trips to a groomer whenever necessary. Grooming should always start with your hands, to feel for lumps, tangles or matted hair.
Holistic and Homeopathic Approaches to Hairball Prevention
Hairballs are comprised of a lot of fat in addition to your cat's fur. By adding a teaspoon of egg-based lecithin (not soy-based) to your cat's wet food twice a week, the fat is dissolved, allowing the hairball to pass through the intestinal tract.
Indoor-only cats should have access to "cat grass". This provides natural roughage to your pet's diet and seems have a mild laxative effect, which can help eliminate the fur that is ingested by your cat when grooming.
Slippery Elm Bark (a herb that turns slimy when you mix it with water) works by coating the digestive tract, again helping your cat to expel hair balls naturally. This is another preventive measure which you can give your cat twice a week. One way to prepare slippery elm bark is to mix 2 capsules with a tablespoon of boiling water. When it cools, add it to your cat's favorite wet food.
Food Supplements That Help Avoid or Get Rid of Hairballs
If your cat enjoys a pat of butter, you can treat her twice weekly with about a half teaspoon to help lubricate her digestive system. Soft bulk is another approach to help her pass hairballs, serving a teaspoon of pureed vegetable two times a week, like canned pumpkin (natural with no additives) or squash.
Pet Store Hairball Products
Petroleum-based laxatives that have been approved by the FDA for use in veterinary medicine include brand names like Drs. Foster and Smith Hairball Remedy, Felaxin, Kat-A-Lax, Lax'aire, Laxatone, to name a few. As with the homeopathic products and some of the foods, the vaseline basically coats both the hair in the cat's stomach and intestines, helping it to pass through the animal's gastrointestinal tract, and also lubricates the colon and stool itself.
In any of the laxatives, there can be a decrease in the body's ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K) especially when it is used frequently and on a long term basis. Speak to your vet about vitamin supplements if you are regularly providing your cat with any hairball prevention foods, herbs or products.