Hairballs in Dogs – Prevention, Treatment & FAQs

hairballs in dogs

Cats aren’t the only pets at risk of getting hairballs – dogs get them too! Hairballs in dogs are uncommon but can form for a number of reasons.

Fortunately, dog hairballs can be treated without medicine. As with any ailment in dogs, prevention is the best way to stop hairballs from forming and luckily there are many ways to do this.

What Are Hairballs?

Hairballs are small collections of fur formed in the stomach of dogs. The collection of fur is occasionally vomited up if it cannot be passed with feces. Despite their name, dog hairballs are elongated, cylindrical, and sometimes congeal around another indigestible element in the stomach. Hairballs in dogs are also called furballs and trichobezoars. Other pets such as cats and rabbits can also suffer from hairballs but the problem is far more common in cats.

Can Dogs Have Hairballs?

Hairballs in dogs are considered rare but can form under the right conditions. Dogs with itchy skin or parasites like fleas and ticks are more likely to chew at their fur. Over-grooming due to allergies or behavioral compulsions also leads to the ingestion of hair

Once the formation of the hairball begins, further ingestion creates a snowball effect; the more hair the dog ingests, the larger the hairball becomes. Once the hairball is large enough it becomes uncomfortable. Physical discomfort compels the dog to vomit the hairball out. In rare cases, your dog’s hairball becomes too large to be coughed up. This causes a blockage in the digestive tract. The hairball can begin to ferment. In rare cases, this requires surgical intervention.

Symptoms of Hairballs in Dogs

Hairballs in dogs are uncommon and preventable. By knowing the associated symptoms, you can help to reduce the chance of your pet suffering from the uncomfortable signs of hairballs.

Excessive Licking

Excessive licking or grooming is typically how hairballs begin to form. Your dog could be over-grooming for a number of physiological reasons; flea hypersensitivity, food allergies, atopic dermatitis, pyodermas, and ectoparasites are common causes for this behavior.

There are also psychogenic causes for excessive licking that you should consider. Depression, generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and extreme boredom all cause excessive grooming.

Excessive licking causes hairballs in dogs.
Excessive licking causes hairballs in dogs.

Gagging and Coughing

Gagging is a distressing symptom for owners to witness. You might worry because you are thinking your dog is choking, or can’t breathe. Fortunately, gagging is a normal reflex. It’s caused by stomach contractions. This is the stomach’s attempt to eject a substance that is blocking the digestive tract. In this context, the substance is a large hairball that needs to leave the stomach. Coughing, on the other hand, is a protective action to clear the airways.

Coughing and gagging are similar, so it helps to know the difference. The easiest way to differentiate the two is by the sound your dog makes Coughing produces a dry, hoarse sound. Gagging, on the other hand, produces a wet sound from the throat. Both coughing and gagging suggest that a hairball is on the way. It’s important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to hairballs alone.

When gagging and coughing are followed by the expulsion of a hairball it is nothing to worry about. However, excessive coughing and gagging indicate that your dog is in need of medical assistance. If your dog gags often and the gagging is accompanied by nasal discharge, respiratory distress, lethargy, fever, or excessive panting or drooling, your dog is likely in extreme distress. Foreign objects lodged in the throat or mouth, kennel cough, sinusitis, heart disease, and tracheal collapse are causes for excessive gagging and coughing. Never assume that the cause is a simple hairball when your dog displays these worrying symptoms.

Dry Skin

Not only is dry skin uncomfortable for your dog, but it can also be a prerequisite for hairball formation. The most common sign of dry skin is itchiness. Your dog scratches and licks themselves to relieve discomfort. They also rub against furniture to try to stop the itchiness. Other symptoms of dry skin include hair loss and skin that appears flaky or scaly. The main problem here is licking. As your dog licks their skin to relieve their symptoms, they inadvertently ingest fur. Over time the hair accumulates in the stomach. The result is a large hairball.

Loss of Appetite

Temporary lack of appetite in your dog is not something to be immediately concerned about. Like humans, dogs sometimes just aren’t hungry or a stressor in their day has caused a lack of interest in food. However, prolonged rejection of food is a sign that something is wrong. If more than 48 hours pass without your dog eating a proper meal it’s best to seek out veterinary advice. Lack of appetite manifests in several ways, including:

  • Eating less than usual
  • Refusing all food
  • Refusing treats
  • Being unable to finish meals
  • Lack of energy

Large, hardened hairballs can cause nausea and abdominal discomfort in dogs. These symptoms lead to a temporary loss of appetite. A loss of appetite is a very general symptom that your dog is feeling unwell and is not exclusive to hairball formation.

loss of appetite due to hairballs
Loss of appetite due to hairballs.

Constipation

Hairballs in dogs cause obstructions in the digestive tract when they are not expelled through vomiting. Bouts of diarrhea and constipation are signs of a hairball that cannot be passed. This typically happens when the hairball is too large and solid to pass with feces. Constipation manifests through several symptoms.

Most dogs excrete feces between 1 to 5 times per day. If your dog is suffering from constipation, they attempt to pass feces unsuccessfully several times. Your dog may circle excessively, drag their bottom along the floor or squat frequently as if to pass stool. Other signs include decreased appetite and passing small amounts of watery feces.

Dog Hairball Treatment and Remedies

Hairballs in dogs can be managed at home in most cases. If you suspect that your dog has hairballs, you can offer petroleum jelly, canned pumpkin, and plenty of water to help your dog along with the process of expelling them.

Petroleum Jelly

Petroleum jelly, or Vaseline, is a waterproof ointment that is used to form a protective barrier on the skin. This barrier seals in the natural moisture of the skin. Because of this, petroleum jelly is used to treat dry and itchy skin. Vaseline is used topically for animals as a preventative treatment. It’s particularly useful for moisturizing dry skin, healing cracked paw pads and treating nasal hyperkeratosis. In general, this remedy is safe and non-toxic if ingested, but that does not mean it would be safe if consumed in large amounts. Always use plain Vaseline and don’t be tempted to use flavored products, especially those containing menthol. Never apply Vaseline to severe burns and deep wounds.

In veterinary medicine, this ointment is a key ingredient for several hairball treatments like Laxatone and PetroMalt. Half a tablespoon of Laxatone can be offered to dogs 2-3 times a week to treat hairballs. The manufacturer recommends that you place a small amount of the product on your dog’s nose or paws to stimulate interest. Some owners opt to mix their own home remedies using the same ingredients. White petroleum jelly mixed with light mineral oil will give the same effects but may be rejected by your pet due to the bad taste.

Pumpkin

Pumpkin is an effective treatment for diarrhea, a symptom of hairballs. Canned pumpkin is rich in fiber and available all year-round. It eases digestion in several ways. The high soluble fiber content increases water absorption in the stool and the fermentation produces beneficial fatty acids. Since canned pumpkin is far more concentrated than fresh pumpkin, it’s significantly higher in fiber. It is also significantly higher in iron and Vitamin A.

The type of canned pumpkin matters. Pumpkin with added spices, salt, or sugar irritates the stomach further. You should never offer canned pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin pie contains xylitol which is toxic to your pet. For these reasons, we suggest purchasing organic canned pumpkin for the best results.

The AKC advises that you offer 1 to 4 tablespoons of canned pumpkin to your dog. This can be mixed into your dog’s meal It’s best to use smaller quantities to avoid giving too much fiber. Too much fiber causes constipation and bloating.

Laxatives

Although laxatives can be effective in treating hairballs, they should only be used with veterinary direction. Laxatives will cause painful cramping and uncomfortable diarrhea in your dog. Administering too much of a laxative will cause your dog distress and discomfort.

Give Lots of Water

Water is necessary to treat hairballs. The most obvious reason is to prevent dehydration. If your dog is dehydrated, the stomach contents become dry and form a blockage. This worsens the severity of the hairball. In addition, water softens the stool. This prevents constipation. If your dog does not drink enough water, they will become constipated and unable to pass any hair in the feces. This causes the hairball to grow larger. As previously discussed, diarrhea is a symptom of hairballs. When your dog suffers from diarrhea they will need to have those fluids replaced. Overall, giving lots of water will aid the digestive system and help to manage the symptoms of hairballs.

Dog Hairball Prevention

Hairballs in dogs are uncommon and can be prevented. Prevention measures include regular brushing, administering flea and tick medication, hydrating the skin, and keeping your dog busy.

Brushing

Regularly brushing your dog reduces loose hair consumption. You should groom your dog at least once a month, but the specific number of times will vary from breed to breed. For puppies and dogs who have not been groomed before, brushing at home and more frequent grooming sessions should be used to acclimatize your dog to being handled.

Long-haired breeds are more prone to matting and require daily to weekly brushing. These breeds include Bearded Collies, Tibetan Terriers, Yorkshire Terriers, and Lhasa Apsos.

Short-haired breeds such as Greyhounds and Labrador Retrievers don’t require as much brushing. You can use a hound glove or rubber brush to bring loose hairs and dirt to the surface. Follow up with a soft-bristle brush to distribute the coat’s natural oils. This can be done once a week.

Some breeds have an undercoat that needs hand stripping. Breeds with a double coat include the Border Terrier, Pomeranian, Malamute, and Samoyed. Maintaining your dog’s double coat will help to prevent hairballs.

Flea and Tick Prevention

By preventing fleas and ticks, you prevent the itchiness and consequent excessive grooming which causes hairballs. To alleviate the symptoms of a flea or tick infestation your dog will scratch, lick and rub themselves, sometimes against furniture or the floor. This makes them more likely to swallow their own fur, especially when licking occurs.

There are many preventative products for fleas and ticks on the market. Here are our recommendations for reputable and popular treatments:

can dogs have hairballs
The reasons why dogs have hairballs.

Keep the Skin Hydrated

Keeping your dog’s skin healthy prevents itchiness and reduces over-grooming. One of the easiest ways to do this is through regular grooming. Grooming stimulates the skin follicles to release moisturizing oils. This also removes dead skin and loose hairs which can clog the skin’s surface.

Bathing with a gentle, balanced shampoo once a month helps to maintain good skin and coat condition. However, over-bathing is a problem. While we tend to wash daily, doing so to a dog will strip the healthy oils from the coat and disrupt its delicate pH. This leads to dry skin and itchiness, which in turn causes over-grooming and leads to hairballs. Only bathe your dog as necessary. It’s appropriate to bathe your dog for medical treatment as advised by your veterinarian and when your dog is dirty.

Arid climates are a huge contributor to having dry skin. On the same lines, the heating and air conditioning in our homes can strip humidity from the air. If your dog is struggling with dry skin, consider adding a high capacity humidifier to your house. This will reintroduce some moisture to the air.

Trim Your Dog's Coat

Occasionally trimming your dog’s coat will prevent matting and potentially reduce the risk of hairball formation. When your dog’s hair is trimmed, it becomes easier for you to groom. The ease of grooming means that you remove loose hairs more quickly and efficiently. This gives your dog less opportunity to ingest their own fur.

Keep Your Dog Busy

Boredom is a leading cause of hairballs, so keeping your dog busy can help to prevent them from forming. To prevent boredom, you should exercise your dog, offer a range of toys and be aware of the signs of stress.

You should walk your pet at least once a day. Not only will the exercise tire your dog out, but it encourages digestion and alleviates boredom. When your dog is mentally stimulated they are less likely to engage in unruly or obsessive behaviors. If you always take the same route, consider changing things up every once in a while to give your pet a change of scenery.

The same old toys lying around get boring. Dogs exhibit neophilia, the preference for new things, especially soft squeaky toys. You can also mix up your dog’s toy collection to spark interest – hide and rotate the toys that they have access to. Bored dogs will use inappropriate things like toys, like your shoes or pillows. With no outlet, some dogs will resort to ingesting their fur through over-grooming.

When boredom and stress become unmanageable, your dog can develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors. These behaviors are abnormal and repeated out of context. Common behaviors that become compulsive include spinning, barking, chewing, sucking on a body part and grooming. If you suspect that your dog is suffering fro compulsive behaviors it is vital to seek veterinary advice. Because some medical conditions cause behaviors similar to those listed above, it is important to rule out neurological, gastrointestinal, and endocrine disorders first. Compulsions are treated with medication and behavior modification training.

About Hairballs in Dogs – FAQs

Have any more questions or concerns about hairballs in dogs? Refer to our FAQs for further guidance and advice on how to prevent and treat this rare but all too possible problem.

How Do You Know If Your Dog Has Hairballs?

Coughing or vomiting up hairballs is the most obvious sign that your dog has a problem with them. You may see hair tangled in your dog’s feces – this indicates that fur is successfully passing through your dog’s digestive system, but it’s wise to monitor how often this occurs. If it happens often, your dog may be ingesting enough hair to cause a hairball to form.

Problem hairballs that cannot be passed by your dog can be less obvious. Generalized symptoms like constipation or diarrhea and lack of appetite are non-specific signs that can be attributed to any number of digestive problems. However, if your dog coughs and gags as if trying to bring something up, it’s likely that a large hairball is a cause.

When a hairball hardens and cannot be coughed up or expelled with feces, the blockage that results can be dangerous. Look out for fatigue, loss of appetite and excessive gagging and coughing. If you spot these signs, seek veterinary help immediately. Surgical intervention may be the next step for your pet.

Dry skin and hairballs
Dry skin and hairballs.

Why Is My Dog Coughing And Gagging?

The occasional cough in a healthy dog is nothing to be concerned about. But like us, recurrent coughing indicates illness, but which illness is responsible can be tricky to pin down. A huge variety of viruses, bacteria, and fungi can infect the upper respiratory tract, airways or lung tissue, causing this sometimes distressing symptom. Other ailments like tracheal collapse and heart diseases cause recurrent coughing. Conditions like kennel cough and gastric torsion cause gagging as well as coughing.

If your dog is coughing and gagging because of a hairball, the hairball should come up fairly quickly. When coughing and gagging are not followed by a hairball it’s time to seek out veterinary assistance. The cause may still be a hairball, but the hairball is likely to be too large and hard to be vomited up. The other potential cause is a foreign object lodged in the throat. It’s best to be safe and not risk leaving your dog to cough and gag excessively.

Can Dogs Vomit Hairballs?

Because hair is not digestible, an accumulation of hair in the stomach will be coughed or vomited back up. If your dog vomits, the vomit can be yellow. This simply means that the stomach is empty and bile is coming up instead of food. If this happens, it’s likely that your dog has not been eating due to a lack of appetite. Lack of appetite is a symptom of hairballs in dogs.

How To Treat Hairballs In Dogs?

Hairballs in dogs are treatable through several means. If you suspect a hairball, you can offer canned pumpkin with your dog’s food, try a petroleum jelly based product like Laxatone, and always offer lots of water to help with the process. Laxatives are another option but you must never use the without veterinary guidance, as you can easily do more harm than good. When hairballs cannot be treated at home they can become dangerous. If you suspect a problem hairball, take your pet to the vet as soon as possible. Surgery may be needed to remove it.

What Does A Hairball Look Like?

Dog hairballs are tightly packed wads of hair. They usually look cylindrical, not round, despite what the name suggests. The color depends on the color of the fur that has been ingested. If your dog does not lick their own fur but licks the fur of another dog, the hairball will be the color of that dog’s coat When this happens you should evaluate your dog’s behavior – is your dog bored or excessively grooming another dog? If so, it may be time to check the other dog for hair loss and sore patches.

Hairballs in dogs are preventable and uncommon If you suspect that your sog is struggling with hairballs, it’s always best to seek out veterinary advice. Home remedies can be helpful, but not on their own – it’s more responsible to pair these with traditional veterinary medicine to ensure the safety and health of your pet.

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