Hairballs can be a problem in dogs, although less frequent than in cats. They happen if dogs swallow too much hair. Hairballs can cause obstructions in the intestine if left untreated. But mild cases are resolved with common laxative pastes.
Hairballs or trichobezoars result from overgrooming. Symptoms include gagging, retching and vomiting. Mild cases resolve easily with laxatives. Hairballs can also cause obstructions in the intestine and may need surgery to be removed.
Causes of hairballs in dogs
Dogs swallow hair when grooming. This should pass through their intestines (tummy) and come out in their poo. But if they eat too much hair or if the hair doesn’t pass through normally, it may accumulate in their stomach. Causes of overgrooming and hairballs include:
- Itchy skin and hair loss, due to allergies, fungal infections or parasites, such as fleas or mites
- Pain in their tummy or joints
- Gastrointestinal problems that slow down or prevent hair passage
- Behavioural problems, such as stress or anxiety
- Eating dead animals whole, such as rabbits or carrion
- Puppies ingesting mum’s hair when nursing.
Symptoms of hairballs in dogs
- Dry cough that sounds like they have something stuck in their throat
- Gagging or retching
- Vomiting, to bring up the hairball, along with liquid or undigested food
If they have a blockage or obstruction in their stomach or gut caused by a hairball, your dog will:
- Stop eating
- Strain to pass poo or have diarrhoea
- Look tired and sleepy
- Show signs of tummy pain
Dogs at higher risk of having problems with hairballs
- Long-haired breeds or those that shed excessively
- Dogs with gastrointestinal disease, such as IBD, megaoesophagus or reflux
- Dogs who suffer from itchy skin because of allergies, parasites or fungal infections are more likely to overgroom
- Dogs who suffer from stress and anxiety or are prone to compulsive behaviours
- Dogs who hunt or eat dead prey out on walks
- Nursing puppies from long-haired mothers
Diagnosing hairballs in dogs
The diagnosis of hairballs is based on finding the trichobezoar in vomit.
Treatment depends on finding out the reason for the excessive hair ingestion.
To diagnose the cause of hairballs in dogs, vets will need to:
- Discuss the history and all the information you can give about your dog’s environment and lifestyle
- Perform a full physical examination
- Offer a behaviour referral
- Carry out skin scrapes or cultures to check for mites or infections
- Suggest blood, urine, poo tests if needed.
- Perform tummy scans and x-rays if an obstruction is suspected
Vet treatment for hairballs in dogs
For occasional hairballs:
- Laxatives: increase the movement in the gut and help drag the hairballs out with the poo. These can be used daily for short periods or weekly for maintenance.
- Special foods: Foods designed to help with tummy issues have a higher content of fibre which helps with the hairballs being dragged out with the poo.
- Medication to help with stress and anxiety alongside a behaviour modification programme.
If your dog has hairball issues due to other illnesses, these should be treated accordingly.
How to treat hairballs in dogs at home
- Laxative pastes: encourage passage of hairballs through the gut and out in the poo
- Specially-formulated foods: High fibre, easily digested diets encourage the movement of food through the intestines and drag the hairballs out in the poo
- Hairball treats designed to promote hair passage
- Pumpkin: rich in fibre, bulks up the poo and helps push out the furballs. Needs to be offered cooked.
- Coconut oil, butter and fish oil do not help to remove hairballs. This is because they are digested and absorbed within the gut and do not have lubricating properties.
How to prevent hairballs in dogs
All home remedies, if used regularly, can help prevent hairballs from causing vomiting or reduce the frequency of occurrence.
Additionally, you can try:
- Brushing your dog regularly or clipping their hair short in the warmer months: removing loose and matted hair, and keeping the coat clean and healthy will reduce the amount of hair your dog swallows.
- Offering a skin supplement: this will keep the skin healthier and less prone to itching
- Keeping up-to-date with flea, tick and mite treatment – a product from your vet is recommended.
- Keeping your dog hydrated by encouraging them to drink
- Clipping the hair around the mammary area in nursing bitches
- Essential oil or pheromone diffusers to help them relax
When to worry
When you should be worried about your dog and hairballs
Seek help from a vet in practice if your dog:
- is continuously being sick
- is not eating
- looks bloated
- Is showing signs of being in pain
Joii can help if:
- You are worried about your dog bringing up hairballs frequently
- You want to discuss food that helps with hairballs
- You’d like to know what products to use to prevent hairballs in dogs