Can dogs get hairballs? The question, I admit, seems strange. Surely, hairballs afflict cats and cats alone? While they are rare, dog hairballs do appear occasionally, and for a variety of reasons. Indeed, a number of hirsute and fur-bearing creatures — most notably cats, but also cows, ferrets, rabbits, and even humans — can and do develop hairballs. And pre-modern and early-modern human cultures believed that hairballs, along with many other stone-like formations expelled by bodies, had magical or medicinal properties.
These days, we expect and can treat hairballs when they afflict our cats. Hairballs in dogs, while unusual, are more likely to send you running to the Internet for answers rather than to your friendly local alchemist. What are hairballs, exactly? What causes hairballs to form in the stomach? What can be done to prevent their formation? The last Friday in April is National Hairball Awareness Day, and we at Dogster have all the information you need to untangle these questions!
A hairball is a trichobezoar, a word that simply means a concentrated mass in the stomach comprised of hair. That mass may be formed solely of accumulated hair, or congeal around another indigestible element present in the stomach. Typically, a dog who inadvertently swallows his own hair or fur in the process of self-grooming will pass any stray hairs in his feces. Should sufficient hair or fur collect in the stomach, animals with a gag reflex, like cats and dogs, will vomit, expelling the mass from their bodies.
While we may associate hairballs with cats, that does not mean they are normal, nor to be expected in any animal. The larger a hairball grows in a dog’s stomach, the more it deprives a dog of necessary fluids. This leads to discomfort, dehydration, and eventually a lack of appetite. A hairball can create blockages in the digestive tract and become septic, interfering with the dog’s normal processes of digestion.
When a dog ingests more hair than he can expel in his feces, that hair can begin to congeal around any other small, stray item present in the stomach. Hairball formation has a kind of snowball effect; once a hairball begins to form, the more hair a dog ingests, the larger it becomes. Once a hairball is large enough, physical discomfort compels the dog to vomit it out. Though hairballs in dogs are rare, they can form under the right conditions.
The length of a dog’s coat is not as big a factor in the formation of hairballs as is the ability to evacuate the bowels before hairballs can form. Dogs with skin conditions that drive them to repeatedly lick or chew on their skin and hair are also more likely to develop a hairball in their stomach. These conditions can vary, from skin allergies to parasitic infestations like mange, fleas, or ticks.
Because hairballs in dogs are rare, the first thing you should do is make a visit to the veterinarian to discover the underlying cause. Should your dog be suffering from a skin allergy or parasitic infestation, treating the source of the affliction will likely eliminate the resulting hairballs. If it is not a skin condition or parasite, the vet may recommend a laxative or temporary dietary change to make passing excess hair in the stomach easier on the dog.
Preventing hairballs before they begin is, of course, the best option. Make sure that your dog is getting enough fresh water to drink. A well-hydrated dog experiences more efficient bowel movements, allowing any hair that is ingested to pass naturally in the feces. If your dog has longer hair, establishing a regular grooming routine, even if it is simply brushing away and disposing of excess hair, reduces the available raw materials.
Boredom is another potential cause of hairballs in dogs. Dogs who are left to their own devices for extended periods of time without toys or company to distract them may turn to chewing and licking at themselves simply to pass the time. Spending time with your dog on a daily basis — going for a regular walk or playing with her at a specific time each day — can eliminate boredom, as can providing an assortment of toys.
Whether you call it a hairball or a trichobezoar, finding a moist mass on your carpet or couch is not only inconvenient for you, but a painful and unwelcome experience for your dog. If your dog is producing them, the most important thing is to discover the reason behind it and to address it as quickly as possible.
Have your dogs ever had problems with hairballs? Was it due to heavy shedding, parasites, or boredom, or was it caused by something else entirely? Share your experiences in the comments!
Learn more about dog hair with Dogster:
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.