First up, I'd like to address some misconceptions about hairballs in cats. Hairballs (even in long-haired cats) are not considered normal if your cat suffers from them more than a few times a year.
The most likely time of year that hairballs occur is in the spring and early summer, when cats shed their winter coats. Apparently July is considered the worst month of the year in North America.
I've read some dangerous advice online that needs addressing. Do not use petroleum jelly (vaseline) or mineral oil. Here's why:
1) If it gets into a cats lungs (inhaling or just going down the wrong way) it can lead to death. NEVER put anything on a cat's nose (unless a veterinarian has prescribed it and specified it to be used on the nose - which is rare. Often the paw is the ideal spot so the cat can lick it off without any fear of inhalation).
2) Both vaseline and mineral oil impede nutrients from being absorbed, particularly fat-soluble vitamins. Serious nutritional deficiencies can result leading to chronic health problems.
3) Get a firm diagnosis from a veterinarian. Not all coughing, vomiting, or hacking means hairballs are the problem. Cats can suffer a multitude of other conditions including (but not limited to): asthma, allergies, intestinal disorders, neurological conditions, kidney or liver disease and more.
It's not always the long-haired cat that suffers
Some cats are "social" groomers who lick others
Is it a hairball or cat poop?
Hairballs (trichobezoars pronounced tricka-BEE-zors) are generally round in the stomach, but because of a cat's esophageal shape, they come out looking cigar-like or sausage-shaped.
chrstphre on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
They can be various colours depending on your cat's coat, what they ate, and gastric juices (which are greenish in colour). Sometimes they look just like feces, but they will NOT smell like it (thankfully).
Should you take the hairball in a ziploc to your veterinarian? I would if it contains blood or any foreign material. Again, you want a firm diagnosis to rule out any other causes.
The most common reasons for hairballs are: too much fur ingested, a diet lacking in enough moisture, or a problem with your feline's GI (gastrointestinal) tract. Cats do not seem to drink more water (as instinctively as dogs do) when they are dehydrated.
Dr. Arnold Plotnick, founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists veterinary hospital in New York, explains that cats (in the wild) do not eat their prey along with water. Dr. Plotnick advises cat owners to keep the food bowl and water bowl in separate locations (but never near the litter box). He explains, "Cats will drink more water and this increase will help their system clean itself of ingested hair."
Kittens rarely suffer from hairballs
They aren't as adept at removing fur as older cats
Once the diagnosis of hairballs (also referred to as "bezoars" by vet staff) is made, there are safe and effective treatments that are recommended by veterinarians. Personally, I will not use laxatives on any of my cats. And, as I mentioned earlier, no petroleum jelly (vaseline) nor any mineral oil.
Since the most common cause of hairballs is too much fur being ingested, brushing your cat daily or at least 3 times a week (for just 5 minutes) may be all s/he requires. I liken it to brushing your teeth - prevention is key.
Over the years (and many cats have owned me), I've tried numerous cat brushes and grooming tools. Up next, Kady (my latest rescue cat) tries out 5 popular styles of fur-removing devices. The kicker is, the least expensive one is actually the best:
Watch Kady trying out 5 types of grooming tools:
The best grooming tool is a shedding blade
There are a few brands out there that manufacture shedding blades (which are also used on horses and dogs). I purchased mine from Wahl (Canada) and the closest match to it is a double-sided shedding blade (which is listed as a grooming tool for dogs, actually). When I checked on Amazon, it was $7.88 (as of May 20th, 2014).
Add wet food and place water in a separate spot
Sean Naber (seannaber on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericBesides putting your cat's water bowl in a separate spot (but not near the litter box), you may wish to increase (or introduce) wet food.
Some dry food preparations are made specifically to help with hairballs (usually by adding more fiber to the formula).
The only dry cat food formulated for hairballs that my local humane society prefers (as a donation) is Science Diet Feline Hairball Remedy. Although, I haven't tried them all and newer products are always coming out, it seems.
Ever wonder why your cat only wants fresh running water? Apparently, cats prefer oxygenated water over still water.
Although there is no formal data available, I can attest to having a cat that moves her water bowl or dips her paw into it before drinking. I change her water a few times a day (and only use ceramic bowls).
So, while it may be instinct, some vets believe a corn-based diet might be one reason. Purportedly, corn makes feline stomachs hotter causing your cat to desire colder, fresher water.
Other safe options endorsed by veterinarians
There are a few success stories with home remedies. Most recently, I understand that adding a pinch of coconut fiber to your cat's food helps. A common recommendation by vets is offering 1 tsp. of 100% pure canned (or freshly mashed) pumpkin a few times a week, on the side.
Another option is to try adding 1 capsule of psyllium seed husk powder mixed with 1 tbsp. water to your feline's food - the dose could vary, so consult your vet about this home remedy.
I had a long-haired cat diagnosed with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) who also suffered from hairballs and she was helped a bit by slippery elm bark tablets broken up into pieces she could swallow.
There are also digestive enzymes (which should be recommended or endorsed by your veterinarian) prior to use. Omega-3 supplements are sometimes helpful but be sure to have your veterinarian recommend which kind and the proper dosage for your cat.
The latest breakthrough in hairball treatments is something I heard about at the 2013 AVMA Annual Convention (held in Chicago, Illinois, USA). It won a "Best New Product" award in 2012 at the AVMA Convention.
It's called Capilex and it's a flavored soft chew that cats seem to love. What I like is it works by breaking down intestinal hair buildup (it's not a laxative, nor a lubricant).
Capilex is sold only to veterinarians. If all other measures fail, it might be worth asking your veterinarian about this once-a-day soft chew. Last time I checked, it costs around $30 for a 30-day supply. The ingredients are: vegetable oil, maltodextrin, croscarmellose sodium, flavor, microcrystalline cellulose, lecithin, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and bromelain.
Up next, Dr. Sheila Jarasek, Director of Technical Services and a practicing veterinarian at Veterinary Group of Chesterfield in Chesterfield, Missouri, USA, explains more about hairballs, the diagnostic process, and Capilex: