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Cats often spend hours licking their coats and paws. Sometimes, therefore, too much hair can get trapped in a cat's stomach, thus causing hair balls.

Hair balls form naturally in cats after days (and sometimes weeks or months) of grooming. Large accumulations of hair become trapped in the stomach because they are simply too big to pass through the digestive system. The more hair that enters the stomach at one time, the larger the wad becomes. Cats need to regurgitate, vomit, or cough up these balls of hair to prevent digestive blockages and disease.

While it would be impossible to teach your pet not to groom itself, there are ways to work around hair balls.

Sometimes a high fiber pet food is all it takes to accelerate the passage of a hair ball or alleviate hair balls altogether. When looking for high fiber foods, look for ones containing 3-10 percent fiber. The higher the fiber level, the less trouble your pet will have eliminating hair.

Brushing cats of stray hair won't stop them from their incessant need to clean, but it will help to cut down on the amount of hair they're swallowing each day. Cats shed hundreds of hairs each day, especially in spring and summer months. Long haired cats should be combed and brushed twice daily. Shorter haired cats should be brushed thoroughly every day.

If you moisten a washcloth and wipe your cat following a brushing session, you'll attract whatever stray and loose hairs your combing and brushing missed. Moisten a paper towel or washcloth with lukewarm water and spend 60 seconds petting the hair away.

Petroleum elixir. When your cat first begins hacking, try giving it a small amount of petroleum jelly. Most cats like the taste of petroleum jelly, so putting 1/4 teaspoon on your finger and allowing the cat to lick it off works well. If your cat isn't fond of the taste, you can put it on his front paw or under his nose, where he will lick himself while grooming. Do this once a day for four days, or until the hair ball passes.

Over the counter treatment. There are several over the counter treatments that help to lubricate hair balls and allow for easy passage. Many fussy cats who don't respond to petroleum jelly actually enjoy the tasty treatments.

Butter. One of the best treatments for hair balls is butter. Since cats love the taste of butter, this is an easy alternative to expensive, over the counter medications. Besides being a natural lubricant, butter makes the gall bladder contract and empty bile, making this a great, mild laxative for your pet. Give each cat 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of butter, once daily, for up to one week. Do not use this treatment with overweight or unhealthy animals.

Cats with skin irritations tend to baby their fur and skin, thus inhaling and swallowing larger amounts of fur. If your pet exhibits signs of excessive itchiness or irritation, it may be time to check it for mange, fleas, or infection. Your veterinarian can help determine the cause of your cat's concern.

Some cats lick out of sheer habit. For the hearty lickers, you can help distract them with games and toys. Compulsive licking and overgrooming can cause unnecessary stress to your cat, as well as the accumulation of hair in the stomach.

While most hair balls are not cause for concern, sometimes things do get out of hand. Hair balls as large as 12 inches long have been found by some vets treating sick animals.

Even normal size hair balls can cause intestinal blockage or choking. If your cat retches for long periods of time or longer than three days, see a veterinarian. Consequently, if your pet refuses to eat, is constipated, or seems to be in pain, call your local animal hospital. A hair ball that blocks the digestive tract can be deadly, so it's important to act early.