By Mel Lee-Smith
Published: 08/29/2017, edited: 10/29/2021
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Hairballs — they're not just for cats!
Yes, dogs get hairballs too, and for many of the same reasons cats do. Although hairballs are more commonly associated with our feline friend and their meticulous grooming habits, dogs also get hairballs, although not usually as frequently. Long-haired dogs, puppies nursing off a mother who is losing hair or shedding near her teats, dogs with skin irritations or parasites that are chewing at their skin and swallowing hair, or just the odd dog that is extremely fastidious and eager with grooming, are all likely to get hairballs.
Hairballs occur when your dog ingests fur and the hair does not smoothly pass through the digestive system but accumulates, forming a hairball. Telltale signs of a hairball are coughing, retching, vomiting, loss of appetite if the blockage occurs, and sometimes gastrointestinal distress including diarrhea.
If a serious blockage develops that cannot be vomited or passed, severe gastrointestinal symptoms and pain can result. If this occurs, your dog can end up in serious medical distress and require veterinary care and possibly surgical intervention to remove the obstruction. Most hairballs can be passed with the aid of laxatives or other supplements to get the hairball moving, but preventing hairballs in the first place is preferable.
Nobody wants to hear that awful retching sound that suggests your dog is about to bring up something disgusting on your new carpet, or worse yet, that you’ll step on in the middle of the night!
Causes and Prevention of Hairballs in Dogs
When dogs self-groom, they lick away dirt, debris, and shedding fur from their coats and, unfortunately, ingest quite a bit of it. Although not as vigorous self-groomers as cats, many dogs groom themselves and some are quite fastidious. If you have a long haired dog, or a dog breed or individual that sheds excessively, they can ingest quite a bit of hair.
Although small amounts of hair usually pass through the digestive tract easily, in some cases, the hair does not pass through the digestive system. In this instance, it can get hung up in the esophagus, stomach or intestines and cause a hairball. By grooming your dog yourself with shedding tools and combs, you can remove as much loose hair as possible before your dog ingests it. You can also consider clipping your dog to remove hair during seasons when shedding and hair loss is a problem for them.
Other reasons a dog may ingest hair are when they are experiencing dry, irritated skin, a skin condition, or a tick or flea bite. If your dog suffers from dry skin, treating them with moisturizing shampoos and providing humidity may relieve the condition and prevent excessive hair loss. Any skin condition such as bacterial or fungal infections should be treated with appropriate medications to prevent chewing at the skin and fur by the affected dog.
Allergic reactions commonly affect a dog's skin and can cause itching, which results in your dog chewing and swallowing excessive amounts of hair. Identifying allergens and treating allergies with steroids or antihistamines to reduce irritation is important. Fleas and ticks can cause your dog to chew at their fur and ingest hair. Preventing fleas and ticks with topical or oral medications will reduce the likelihood of hair being ingested when your dog tries to “attack’ their tiny tormentors.
Dogs that are experiencing excessive hair loss due to poor health are more prone to hairballs from self grooming. Ensuring your dog's overall health by providing a healthy, complete diet with supplements to ensure hair coat health can reduce hair loss in your dog. Also, addressing any endocrine or other health conditions contributing to hair loss will reduce the chance of hairballs forming in your dog's gut.
Sometimes, dogs get hairballs not from their own hair, but from hair on their prey. A dog that ingests little critters can end up with hairballs from rodents or other small furry critters they have ingested. Although most of us are happy to have our dog rid our homes and yard of vermin, preventing them from ingesting their prey is desirable to prevent hairballs. You should supervise your dog when outside to prevent them from ingesting small furry animals that may give them hairballs. Remember, if you have a dog that likes to hunt, keep up to date on deworming medication and parasite prevention.
Sometimes when puppies nurse, they may ingest hair while nuzzling around their mother's teats. Some breeders shave their mother dog’s bellies to prevent dirt and hair building up in this area. This has the added benefit of making mammary glands visible so other problems like mastitis are easily detected.
Dogs that are bored or nervous will chew at their fur coat and ingest hair. Providing appropriate stimulation and exercises and addressing anxiety disorders will help prevent this.
Some general tips for preventing hairball accumulation include:
Providing your dog with omega 3 fatty acids or fish oil as a supplement will help lubricate the digestive system and help ingested hair to pass naturally through the system.
Grooming, cleaning, and clipping your dog to remove excess hair will prevent hairballs from any of a variety of causes.
Laxatives and digestive aids, including pumpkin, to help break down or pass hairballs when they occur are available and can be administered to dogs that are prone to accumulating hairballs.
Ensuring your dog is well hydrated so their digestive system will naturally pass hair accumulations. A dehydrated dog is more prone to digestive blockages.
Importance of Preventing Hairballs
A dog with hairballs is not only inconvenient (no one likes cleaning up a vomited hairball) but hairballs can pose a health risk for your dog. If a serious blockage occurs that can not be passed, gastrointestinal distress can result, and in serious cases, surgical intervention to resolve the blockage may be required.
If you see your dog grooming themselves excessively, there is a good chance they are ingesting more hair than they should be. Determining the cause of their excessive grooming and addressing it is well worthwhile. Not only will this prevent hairballs, but addressing the underlying conditions such as allergies, parasites, or skin conditions is important for your dog's health. Simple steps like grooming your dog to remove loose hair and providing lubrication to your dog's digestive system with supplements to help the hair pass through can prevent a serious medical condition from an accumulated hairball.
Paying for surgery to remove hairballs out of pocket can be a major financial burden. Fortunately, most pet insurance companies reimburse claims within 3 days, putting 90% of the bill back in your pocket. In the market for pet insurance? Compare leading pet insurance companies to find the right plan for your pet.
Hairballs are gross, whether from your cat or your dog! Preventing them is not only less messy and disgusting for you, but it can be important to your dog's health as serious complications can occur from hairballs that get stuck in your dog's digestive system. Grooming, cleaning, clipping, treating skin conditions, providing a healthy diet and supplements to lubricate your dog's GI tract, and hydrating your dog are all important steps you can take to reduce the incidence of hairballs in your dog. Or you could always consider a non-shedding breed!