Have you heard of 'Rapunzel syndrome' in people? Does it help to be reminded that Rapunzel was a famously long-haired lady featured in a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm?
Rapunzel syndrome is a rare condition where people feel compelled to eat their own hair. It often goes hand in hand with a compulsion to pull out their hair. Why? It's the product of deep-seated psychological distress. The sufferer gains a sense of relief when they pluck out and eat their own hair. The result is a human hairball. These are rare and most often come to light because the patient has uncontrollable vomiting.
So what about dogs?
Can Dogs Get Hairballs?
But of course, this isn't an infectious condition that they 'caught' from a human. Again, hairballs are rare in dogs, and most likely the result of obsessive licking. This can be the result of stress, or it could also be due to itchiness or pain.
Does My Dog Have Hairballs?
Perhaps you are a cat owner (and it's a rare feline friend who doesn't get hairballs) and the dog's symptoms remind them of cat furballs. Just be aware that the signs are pretty general, and it's always best to get your pet pal checked by a vet. Here are some of the symptoms to be vigilant for:
Vomiting: Hair rubbing against the stomach wall causes irritation, which makes the dog prone to vomiting
Severe vomiting: If the hairball travels into the intestine, it can form a plug; this blocks the gut and nothing can pass along it
Lack of appetite: A very general sign linked to feeling unwell
Excessive licking: Obsessive licking gives the dog the means to swallow hair
Long coat: The more hair the dog has, the more there is to swallow
Licking lies at the heart of the problem, so what could trigger this behavior?
Food sensitivity: Food allergy commonly causes skin irritation
Pain: With arthritis or a sore joint, the dog may lick to get some relief
Behavioral: Licking releases natural morphine-like substances into the bloodstream, which help relieve anxiety
To diagnose a hairball, the vet needs blood tests to rule out other causes of vomiting, such as pancreatitis or kidney disease. If these come back normal, then imaging the belly, by ultrasound or taking x-rays, can identify the blockage.
How Do I Treat My Dog's Hairballs?
A hairball rattling round in the stomach causes irritation. Giving a gentle lubricant (such as a liquid paraffin product designed for relieving hairballs in cats) can help the dog to bring it up. Hairballs that are stuck in the gut require surgical removal by a vet. However, it's best to prevent the problem from getting to this stage.
Prevention includes regular grooming, especially of long-haired dogs or heavy shedders. Capturing the hair on the brush means there's less to get stuck in the stomach. In addition, any health problems should be corrected, which may be as simple as a de-flea treatment or pain relief for arthritis. If the cause is stress, then it's important to take the advice of a professional behaviorist on how to help the dog.
How Are Hairballs Similar in Dogs and Humans?
Believe it or not, both dogs and people show similar symptoms when suffering from hairballs. For both species it is an unusual condition, and they are both liable to have sore stomachs and vomit. And if the problem is not corrected, both are going to experience the distress of an intestinal blockage.
In addition, hairballs in humans are linked to emotional distress, and this can also be the case with dogs. Whereas people pull out and chew their hair, for dogs it's a case of licking to release endorphins.
How Are Hairballs Different in Dogs and Humans?
There is one important difference between dog and human hairballs. Dogs may often be giving you a hint they have a medical problem. This is because their excessive licking may be a response to pain or an insatiable itch.
Humans, however, are almost certainly eating their hair because of an emotional disorder.
An elderly German Shepherd had taken to licking her hip. Things had got so bad she'd gnawed a small bald patch in her coat. Then she started being sick, and the vomitus contained hair. Her owner consulted a vet, who found the dog was suffering from arthritis in the hip. Blood tests showed the dog had excellent kidney function and was well in every other way. The dog was prescribed a painkiller for the arthritis, and a gentle lubricant to relieve the hairball. The owner also committed to daily brushing, to control the dog's heavy shed. A week later, the vomiting had stopped, the licking had eased back, and the dog was doing better on her walks. Happy days!